Cross-Country

Knight training to star for Syracuse despite beginning sport just 3 years ago

Starting high school, Justyn Knight was a mostly undiscovered talent. He played varsity basketball and volleyball, but no one realized his true potential as a runner.

Not one until his 10th-grade gym class.

Knight was practicing for a 5,000-meter race as part of his school’s physical education curriculum, but his teacher didn’t think he was pushing himself.

“He thought that I wasn’t putting my best foot forward,” Knight said. “Since I was a varsity athlete, he expected more out of me, so he told me that if I wanted to get my mark a lot higher that I’d have to do well in the 5K and also win in my class.”

Knight didn’t just win. He broke gym class records along the way and caught the attention of Frank Bergin, the varsity track and field coach at St. Michael’s (Ontario) College School. Bergin invited Knight to come to a practice, timed him and asked him to join the team.

Now a Syracuse freshman and one of the most highly rated prospects in North America, Knight is transitioning from his brief high school career to the Orange’s higher-intensity program. And because Knight’s track and field season ended in July — much later than the runners at Syracuse — SU head coach Chris Fox is easing Knight into the season.

“His coach did things very smartly to get him to where he was, but now we’ve raised the game where this is a different level,” Fox said.

Knight is used to logging 35 miles a week, but said runners at Syracuse do twice that. He’s used to doing faster-paced workouts, but Fox has put him through longer and more intense ones.

His first high school race came with about three meets left in his sophomore season. Knight showed up in basketball shoes and shorts. After borrowing shoes to run in, he placed first and second in his first two competitive races, the 3,000-meter and 1,500-meter races, respectively, and made it to the Ontario Federation of School Athletics Associations’ championship in his first year.

In 2012, Knight dropped all other sports to take up running full time. He ran cross-country for the first time, placing in the top 25 in the OFSAA finals and fifth in track and field.

“When it came down to OFSAA, although in everybody else’s eyes he did really well, he thought he didn’t do all that great,” Knight’s mother Jennifer Knight said. “It was phenomenal, but for him it was kind of like ‘what the heck is going on here?’”

He used his own disappointment and other people’s doubts, due to his lack of experience, as motivation. In his senior season, he went undefeated in cross-country.

He placed first at the Ontario finals — a school first— and first in the junior men’s division at the Canadian National Cross Country Championships.

On the biggest stage, the International Association of Athletics Federations World Track and Field Championships, Knight was the first runner in the junior division from a non-African country to finish, placing eighth.

Knight said he owes his success to the instruction and training he’s received from his coaches.

“Since I’m pretty new to the sport, it gives me an open mind where I kind of have to listen to everything that the coaches say,” Knight said. “I trust my coaches and they all know what’s best for me. I think me just listening to them and doing everything that they ask has helped me become the runner I am today.”

Fox said Knight is within the team’s tightly contested group of top 10 runners. But he won’t let the reins off to see what Knight can do in competition until the Boston Inter-Regional on Sept. 26, when the races start counting toward points for the NCAA championship.

“Obviously there’s a lot of potential there, “ Fox said. “He’s a very talented kid that is way undertrained at this point in his career, so we have to be very judicious about increasing what he does, but he’s got a lot of ability to be able to help us.”

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