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Human, or Super Saiyan? Grant Holloway Keeps The World Wondering By Zach Dirlam

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In the realm of Dragon Ball Z, an anime television series Grant Holloway loves, Saiyans are the universe’s strongest warrior race.

A handful of Saiyans, Son Goku head among them, protect Earth from evil. They engage in hand-to-hand combat and vanquish enemies with energy beams. Physically they resemble humans, save for their black spiky hair and particularly dark eyes. They elevate their “battle power” through training, and those with gentle spirits can raise the number of “S-Cells” in their bodies. Both are necessary to generate a Super Saiyan transformation. The Super Saiyan form is 50 times more powerful than a Saiyan’s base form. In the heightened state, their hair spikes up and glows gold, their eyes turn an aquamarine tint, a visible golden aura of energy surrounds them.

Holloway believes he is a Super Saiyan.

(Not literally. Just when it comes to his athletic talents—parts of which he compares to a handful of Dragon Ball Z characters—and his Twitter header, which he fills with one of Goku’s Super Saiyan forms ahead of meets to let the world know how strong he feels.)

Go ahead, laugh. Dismiss it as fantasy.

Given the historic feats, the pair of NCAA titles, the laundry list of oh-my-gosh-that-just-happened moments Holloway produced last year, though, maybe there is some truth to it. Or perhaps validation will come Saturday and Sunday at the SEC Indoor Championships in College Station, Texas, where the sophomore will defend his 60-meter hurdles conference title and attempt to lower the collegiate record he set two weeks ago. He will also contend for the long jump crown (entering competition tied for fourth nationally) and running for Florida’s 4x400 relay team—which is coming off the fourth-fastest time ever recorded indoors. Such world-class versatility is unparalleled.

Super Saiyan or not, Holloway’s 2017 season affirmed him as one of track and field’s fastest-ascending stars.

First came dominance en route to his NCAA title in the 60 hurdles. Olympic and world champion Omar McLeod, previous holder of the collegiate record Holloway now owns, is the only other freshman to pull that off. Ninety-five minutes later, as the second leg for Florida’s NCAA runner-up 4x400 relay team, he split 44.81 seconds (anything under 45 is elite indoors, which produces times slightly slower than outdoors).

Three weeks after that absurdity, he hawked five runners with a 44.1-second split to complete a sixth-to-first comeback victory for the Gators’ 4x400 relay team. The clip went viral.

Holloway saved a far greater performance for last June’s NCAA Outdoor Championships. He captured the 110-meter hurdles national title, making him the first-ever freshman to sweep the indoor and outdoor high hurdles. Paired with a runner-up finish in the long jump, Holloway became the first collegian of all time with top-two finishes in both events. The grand finale? A 43.89-second 4x400 relay split (best in the field and a tenth better than 2017 NCAA and American 400 meters champion Fred Kerley of Texas A&M), anchoring the Gators to the fourth-place finish they needed to secure a second consecutive team championship.

Among professionals at the United States Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Holloway missed the 110 hurdles podium and one of three IAAF World Championships berths by five hundredths of a second. Devon Allen, a two-time American champion, was the one who barely held him off.

And he did it all—everything, from January to June—with a dime-sized piece of detached cartilage floating between his knee and kneecap.

“Every single day it hurt. A lot,” Holloway said. “It was just killing me. It hurt to the point where I’d wake up in the middle of the night in pain.”

Head coach Mike Holloway (the two believe they are distant cousins, tracing family back to Albany, Georgia) and his staff managed the injury all year, adjusting Holloway’s training as best they could. Once everyone found out exactly what he pushed through, the whole season seemed surreal.

“When they did the surgery [in July] and told us the extent of what he was running with last year, the size of the chip in his knee … I was just like, wow,” said Coach Holloway, well known for producing Olympians and world champions in his 23 years at Florida. “Those were phenomenal things he did. Absolutely phenomenal.”

Maybe a Super Saiyan is among us.

***

Area code 757, tattooed on Holloway’s left wrist, services the southeastern-most portions of Virginia, covering the Virginia Peninsula, Eastern Shore and Hampton Roads.

Holloway proudly hails from Chesapeake. South Chesapeake, more specifically. Through the years, much of its farmland was converted into what he refers to today as a quiet suburban city, one of nine comprising Hampton Roads.

The area code’s recent lineage of professional athletes is astounding. Hall of Famer Allen Iverson rose from Hampton. Seven-time NBA All-Star Alonzo Mourning and 3-time NFL Pro Bowl safety DeAngelo Hall are Chesapeake natives. Percy Harvin was born there but made his name in Virginia Beach, eventually starring at wide receiver for the Gators and playing eight NFL seasons. Dorian Finney-Smith, another recent Florida star and current Dallas Maverick, came from Portsmouth. Norfolk produced David Wright, a two-time Gold Glover and Silver Slugger Award winner for the New York Mets. Recent track and field talents to emerge from Chesapeake are Byron Robinson, a 2016 Olympian, and Michael Cherry, this year’s indoor 400 meters American champion.

Holloway’s name reverberates across the 757. He frequently reciprocates on the grandest stages, like last year’s NCAA Outdoors. Immediately after crossing the 110 hurdles finish line, he found an ESPN camera and shouted, “757 all day! 757!”

A light pink bracelet was wrapped around Holloway’s right wrist. Accessories—everything from watches to wristbands, headbands to arm sleeves—are somewhat of a calling card for him. He typically wears three or four items. That day, however, just the bracelet inscribed Kaitlyn Elizabeth Duffy. Exactly three weeks prior, Kaitlyn was killed when a drunk driver struck her SUV head-on. She was a friend of Holloway's, 18 years old and a month away from graduating high school.

“It kind of hit me hard,” Holloway recalled. “I got in touch with the parents and asked if there was any possible way they could get me something I could wear to let her know I’m doing this for her … to let the family know I’m trying to keep her in everybody’s thoughts.”

Once Florida’s championship celebration wound down, Holloway noticed a missed call from an unknown 757 number amid the plethora of congratulatory text messages, voicemails and social media notifications. Curious, he dialed the number back. Kaitlyn’s mother, Tammy, answered the phone, crying as she thanked Holloway. Later that summer, he gave the family a signed photo from his title-winning race.

“That right there brought tears to many people here in the city,” said his father, Stan Holloway. “It just showed the type of character Grant is.”

At different points in the year, Holloway wore two other bracelets commemorating Chesapeake teenagers who tragically passed away. One with shades of pink, yellow and orange for Kelly Valentine, a 13-year-old struck by a car and killed in April 2011. The other was light purple and white, in remembrance of Megan Curry, who died in June 2015 following a nearly four-year battle with a rare blood disorder.

“Me wearing the wristbands and making a story out of it, everybody was kind of intrigued and always remembering Kelly, Megan, and Kaitlyn,” Holloway said. “At the same time, I wanted to do it for myself to give me something to motivate me every day at a practice, something to push me at the track meet.”

Pure-hearted acts like those are common nature for Holloway. And it’s all genuine. One hundred percent.

Holloway’s father and Leroy Harper, Grassfield High School’s head track and field coach and assistant football coach, both shared a story from the indoor state championships Holloway’s senior year. A little boy recognized and congratulated him on his trio of state titles. As Stan and Harper retell it, Holloway took off one of his gold medals and handed it to the boy. The boy’s father recently tried to give it back to Stan. “Grant gave that medal to that young man, and that’s where it belongs,” he replied.

“That’s the thing about Grant; he hasn’t changed,” Harper said. “He still does that now. These kids that are here, everybody’s walking around in Florida gear like they’re part of the team. That’s the kind of person he is.”

Holloway's caring for others goes beyond those in Chesapeake. For one of his courses this year, he's required to spend 20 hours working with a second grade class at Littlewood Elementary.

Holloway says the kids have grown on him, which is why he intends to continue visiting even after fulfilling his obligation.

"A lot of people are doing this to check hours off a list. He sees it as an opportunity to give back. They latched onto him right away." --Miss LaRoche, Littlewood Elementary teacher

According to Stan, those things, not his remarkable athletic achievements, are what make Holloway such an endearing figure among 757 residents. They appreciate how humble he is, how caring he seemingly always chooses to be. They pass along those words whenever they spot him in town. Holloway enjoys the attention, mostly because it motivates him to keep going, to keep putting on for his hometown.

“That 757, it just has that swag to it,” Holloway said, sporting his radiant smile. “It kind of defines who you are. I can’t explain it, but it’s something I want to represent, always.”

***

Practice is fun for Holloway. Most of the time. He does not enjoy going through workouts with the quarter-milers one bit. But high hurdles training? Always a blast.

It is a whirlwind of contradictions. Holloway’s 6-foot-3 and lean but powerful. Boisterous but humble. At ease but locked in. Laughing but focused. Smiling but determined. Fiery but coachable. Watching it play out is as entertaining as Holloway’s races. Seeing him enjoy it so much, with that bright and welcoming smile across his face, it makes you happy.

"He comes out every day and just grinds," Coach Holloway said. "What do we have today, boss? Let’s get it done. I appreciate that. When we talked during the recruiting process he told me he wasn’t afraid of hard work, because he knew if he didn’t work hard he couldn’t be the best ever."

Holloway’s work ethic comes from his grandparents, mother, and Stan, a retired Navy officer. There was actually a point in time Holloway hoped to follow his father’s footsteps and join the Navy. (“He would have been a good Navy officer,” Stan said.) He later came to the conclusion his future would be track and field, so he went from studying his father to analyzing high hurdlers like Aries Merritt, the world record holder, and 2013 world champion David Oliver—both of whom were in their primes as Holloway became serious about the sport. (Holloway hurdles in short shorts as a homage to Oliver.)

Why does Holloway relish training to the degree he does?

Three reasons. Firstly, the personal motto written over top of his bed: every single day is another day to get better. Then there is his vision: winning a gold medal at the 2020 Olympics, holding up the American flag, crying, celebrating with his parents, Coach Holloway, everyone who made the trip to support him.

The third one led him to pass on a college football career, despite interest from both Florida and Georgia. Harper is certain Holloway could have been a first-round draft pick at cornerback or wide receiver if he stuck with it.

“I remember when he called and told me he didn’t want to play football anymore,” Coach Holloway said. “I asked why. He said, ‘Honestly, I want to be the best high hurdler ever. I don’t think I could do that while I’m playing football.’”

Holloway’s only doubts and second-guessing at Florida followed last July's knee surgery. He could not walk on his left leg for 10 weeks. Pool workouts with assistant coach Mellanee Welty were “torture.” Physical therapy was taxing. He thought for sure he needed to redshirt the upcoming indoor season.

“But if I look back on it now, every pool workout got me ready for January,” Holloway said. “Coach Welty was a big help this fall. She was just always there for me. Susan, my physical therapist, was also a big help. She motivated me each day to get out there. She changed my life. Without her … I couldn’t have done any of it.”

Back out there is a massive understatement.

Holloway is pain free, feeling better than he has in quite some time. The 60 hurdles collegiate record he broke two weeks ago? Done with a left knee he says is “80-85 percent.” The American and world records do not seem preposterous, given that assessment.

Outside chatter about Holloway’s professional prospects and being the future of high hurdling will start soon. Maybe it has already begun. Indications point to it being louder than ever come June's NCAA Outdoor Championships and American championships—which is when Holloway says his knee will be 100 percent again.

Those conversations are irrelevant to Holloway right now. He just wants to score points and win titles for the Gators, push his teammates, and follow what is already a historic indoor season with an equally impressive outdoor campaign.

“There is no need to talk about it,” Holloway said. “That’s just people’s opinions. Someone else could have another opinion I’m just an indoor runner. Who am I to say anything?

“Nobody wants someone that can only run indoors. The bread and butter is: 110 hurdles, who’s going to run sub-13 and who’s going to get the gold? That’s what everybody wants. Until outdoor season, I can’t really talk. I can’t think about that.

“I’m just here, having fun at the University of Florida, giving it my all.”

***

Four o’clock approaches Florida’s Percy Beard Track on a sunny Friday. The weekend is underway at fraternity houses across the street, providing Holloway and the Gators a hip-hop soundtrack for what remains of their last grueling workout leading into the SEC Indoor Championships.

Today is all about volume for Holloway, who’s been grinding since 2:30 p.m. His long jump and hurdle workouts are done, leaving only a 250-meter sprint between him and two days off.

About 15 minutes earlier, Holloway’s 4x400 relay teammates—Kunle Fasasi, Benjamin Lobo Vedel, and Chantz Sawyers—all broke 20 seconds in the first 200 meters of their 320-meter sprints. (Translation: crazy-fast.) Welty brings this to Holloway’s attention. She even jokes he might be too slow for Florida’s record-setting relay team. He flashes his trademark smile and heads to the starting mark with fellow hurdler Cory Poole.

Welty and assistant coach Adrain Mann prepare their stopwatches at the center of the infield, wondering aloud whether Holloway will break 20 seconds, too. Split verdict. Assistant coach Nic Petersen wanders over from the jumps pit. He chimes in after hearing of the three sub-20s, “Oh, he’ll do it then.” Petersen walks this back moments later, reminding the group what Holloway’s already done this afternoon.

“Yeah. But it’s Grant,” Welty says.

Coach Holloway gives the starting command and clicks his stopwatch. Holloway and Poole take off. As they round the curve, turning into a headwind, Welty loses confidence in her prediction.

The split? 20.8 seconds.

Holloway’s human after all. Super Saiyans remain a fantasy.

Zach Dirlam is an assistant director of communications (track and field / volleyball) for the University Athletic Association and publishes feature stories for FloridaGators.com.

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