Once Irie Gourde set his sights on attending Brandeis University, his focus was on academics and pursuing his economics degree. Little could he have foreseen that he would graduate as one of the most prolific athletes in the history of the Judges’ men’s track and field program.
A NON-TRADITIONAL ROUTE TO TRACK
“I did some exercising and joined club soccer briefly as a freshman. I was putting a lot more into it than I was getting out of it though,” he recalled. He did find a niche in a very different sport, archery. “It interested me during the club fair at orientation and my step-grandfather was a hunter. I had shot once or twice and it seemed like a fun twist on that athletic event,” Gourde commented.
Gourde always stayed active, and like in his track career, often had both feet off the ground
He was shooting with hand-me-down equipment and enjoying it to the point that he attended formal tryout shoots. His tryout scores qualified to compete with the team, which he did for 1 ½ years, acquiring his own equipment over time.
Eventually, academics dominated his time. “School was ramping up. In addition to my economics classes, I was also taking computer science and English,” he said. “I couldn’t find the time to participate in archery as well and stopped toward the end of my junior year.”
If not for suitemate Nick Wactor, the University Athletic Association (UAA) would likely never have heard of Irie Gourde. “I distinctly remember one conversation when Nick asked me what sports I used to play. I told him I competed a little bit in track in high school and he asked me what my times were,” Gourde recollected. “The Canadian databases with my times didn’t have much recorded, but I told him my times were 53.50 (seconds) in the 400, low 23 (seconds) in the 200, and 11.8 (seconds) in the 100. He said, ‘those times wouldn’t be bad for the track team if you had the right training.’”
“That conversation was just a piece of the puzzle,” Wactor relayed. “He had inquired about joining the team as a freshman since he enjoyed it in high school. The program was in a very different place then and he was told there was likely not enough room on the team. He had the impression that the team wasn’t taking on walk-ons.”
Now the question was if it was even worth it for Gourde to try again to join the team. “Would I be able to be a senior walk-on? Even I knew that wouldn’t make much sense,” he laughed. “Nick put me in touch with Marlee Berg, who has recently moved to another school and she told me the roster was full or filling up. She connected me to (head coach) Sinead (Delahunty Evans), which led to an e-mail conversation where she told me track was a big commitment, but that we could talk further before the start of the semester.”
“My second year living with him, I knew he was fairly athletic. We went rock climbing a lot. I was looking to get more people on the team,” Wactor stated. “I had been off the track team due to injury as a junior. I was returning to the team and I told Irie they weren’t looking for amazing times, but looking for the commitment to the team. Irie said, ‘I can do that.’”
THE EARLY DAYS ON THE TRACK TEAM
“I wanted to end college on the highest note, stronger that I entered it,” Gourde remarked. “Nick gave me the rundown and reiterated the commitment it would take to join the team. I trained independently, lifting and running. Then he brought me to a captain’s practice to get to know people and participate in the workouts.”
Gourde was introduced to the captains and began training. “I struggled those first few weeks. The intensity and the time commitment were tougher than what I had been doing, but I wanted to earn my place,” he admitted. “As we approached the moment of decision, I talked to (then assistant coach) Steve (Flanagan) as the sprinting coach and he asked me what kind of runner I would be. I had been training as a short sprinter, but the trainings could be specialized from then onward, so he asked for a decision.”
“I had no idea what Irie was capable of. In fact, I remember a conversation when we told him we would need to be sure he could hang with potential training partners,” Flanagan stated.
Gourde’s better times in high school were in the short sprints, but always up for a challenge, he chose to run the 200 and 400 for Brandeis. “My worst race ever was the 400. I could stay away from it forever or recognize that it could bring the biggest margin of change. With only one year to run, I chose to be a long sprinter where I could show the most improvement,” he observed.
“He didn’t have any teammates to train with for longer sprints so his best event in high school was the 100,” Flanagan said. “We chose the 400 over the 100, knowing he could run a good 200 off either type of training.”
As it turned out, he never did get officially timed to see if he could make the team. “I got sick the weekend of the time trials and barely made it to my classes. The coaches had still not seen me run and I was completely unproven,” he recounted. “It was rescheduled for the following week and something else went wrong, weather and/or conflicting schedules. Another week went by and we were getting close to our first meet. Finally, Steve told me I was being put on the roster because the other runners liked having me around.”
“By that point, Sinead and I had been thoroughly impressed by his dedication and work ethic despite not having a spot on the team,” Flanagan revealed. “We canceled the time trial and he got a uniform.”
THE FIRST SEASON
Having not run a competitive race in three years, Gourde saw the Judges’ season-opening University of Massachusetts Boston Invitational at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center on Dec. 3, 2016 as his time trial. “I had to learn about the cut-in very quickly as I had always been in lane one indoors. I was racing with Churchill Perry, who was always winning our sprints and was our strongest runner,” he remembered. “I figured whatever he does will help me find out where I am. He was on the outside. I knew he was fast so I wanted to keep an eye on him. He takes the cut-in to finish in 51.60 (seconds) and I followed his draft.”
Gourde headshot for 2016-17 season, his first
It was not an easy race for Gourde, but an unforgettable one for those who saw him. “There was the pain that beat me so badly when I was in high school, but I fought through it. I was exhausted, but I was so in the zone,” he expressed. “I didn’t really know how good the time was (51.89 seconds) and was focused on catching my breath. Steve came over and said, ‘are you kidding me? That was incredible for your first race.’”
“Before he ran that first race, not even he knew how fast he was,” Wactor added. “He ran a really good time, though nothing compared to what he eventually ran. It was head-turning. Is this a fluke or will he get better? Irie and others still weren’t really sure he would be so good.”
“Running that time in the 400 got me excited for the 200 coming up later. I wasn’t so scared, plus the event doesn’t hurt me or cause me as much mental turmoil,” Gourde stated. “I gave it everything I had left and ran a 23 or low 24 to reach the final and earn the confidence of my teammates.” He ran a finals time of 23.24 for a ninth-place finish to go with his fourth-place finish in the 400 in his first collegiate meet.
From there, Gourde just got better and better. “I trusted the process of doing a little better every time. I wasn’t that familiar with track or how to chase the lead runner or pace energy well,” he acknowledged. “I was learning the internal process, maintaining focus in the 200 and working through the pain of the 400. I got better very quickly, every weekend.”
“Every race after that first one, it became more and more clear how incredibly talented he was,” Wactor communicated. “It went from train hard and try to beat Irie and to let’s train hard and cheer on Irie. It was so great for the team spirit to have someone that fast on the team.”
As impressive as his times were becoming, it was Gourde’s dedication that often stood out. Due to his class schedule, Gourde needed to train one day on his own and one of those days stands out in Flanagan’s mind. “For whatever reason, our indoor track was closed one rainy day when he was going to run. That didn’t stop Irie as he went to the outdoor track and put in the work,” he recalled. “I didn’t know until he came back inside and stopped by the track office. He was drenched to the bone. Irie’s level of dedication in situations like that not only made him a great student-athlete, it made him a great teammate. Actions similar to that earned the respect of his teammates and made it easy to have a senior walk-on who immediately added to the team dynamic.”
Just two months into his collegiate career, Gourde broke the Brandeis record in the 200-meter dash that was set in 1979 when he ran 21.95 seconds at the Boston University David Hemery Valentine Invitational. He was subsequently named Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Division III New England Runner of the Week.
THE UAA CHAMPIONSHIPS AND POST-SEASON
Gourde admits he didn’t know a lot about the UAA track and field championships. “I was a track-illiterate when others were talking about meets,” he conceded. “When UAAs were approaching, I was thinking about how I would be tripling for the first time, competing in the 400, 200, and the 4x4 relay. I was already intimidated by running three events, then I learned there were preliminaries and finals!”
His first appearance in a UAA championship, the 2017 indoor meet at Brandeis, was a successful one as he placed second in both the 200 (behind Nathan Downey of University of Chicago) and the 400 (behind Nate Wahner of Case Western Reserve University). “The hardest physical trial was the final day of indoors, having to run all three events without a lot of time in between. I was not yet fully trained to endure that kind of volume,” Gourde said. “It was just grit at the end. The meet was a big benchmark for our team and how far we had come. I got two second-places and it was a very rewarding team experience with great support.”
“I saw him race first time at conference and he was all in,” Wahner commented. “He just kind of showed up on the scene. Who is this guy? Where did he come from? How do we say his name?”
Believing that this would be the last year he would compete, Gourde took full advantage of those final months of the season. “I knew for a fact I was on the way out with no lessons to be learned for the next year,” he articulated. “Instead, the lesson of one weekend had to be used the following weekend. I tried to learn as quickly as I could with the deadline approaching. I learned a lot about myself physically and emotionally.”
The outdoor championship at University of Chicago brought more of the same as Gourde earned two more runner-up finishes, placing second to Wahner in both the 200 and 400. He broke his own school outdoor mark in the 200 during the preliminaries with a time of 21.68 seconds. “If I had been on my own for any of those key moments, none of it ever would have happened. Nick gave me the drive,” he declared. “I felt like I was out of my league at UAAs, a few too many steps out of my comfort zone, but my coaches and teammates said I was in the same league. Eventually, I believed I was. Knowing I did my best was enough for me.”
Gourde handing off the baton to Nick Wactor in the 4x4 relay at the 2017 UAA outdoor championships
“Irie is one of the fiercest natural competitors I have competed against. I love competing against people like that,” Wahner remarked. “I got to know him a little from racing against him. He is one of the nicest guys I have ever met and he brought out the best in me.”
As he was approaching the end of his senior year, he wasn’t thinking about track. “What am I going to do after graduation? Where am I going to live? Then I qualified for NCAAs,” he recollected. “That was a ‘Hail Mary,’ a small miracle that extended my timeline to think about my future.” He became the first Brandeis male runner to qualify for an NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championship sprinting event in more than a decade, placing 18th overall to cap off his first and senior season.
Gourde at his undergraduate Brandeis graduation ceremony
That summer, Gourde had plans to do some international work and applied for the Peace Corps, a self-sufficient internship for two years. Instead, he was headed for an All-America season in 2018-19.