By Garth Shanklin
Clermont County’s own Pierce Burnam finished his track and field career at Wilmington College with a flair last month.
Burnam, competing in the 400 meter hurdles for the Quakers, broke the school record in the event en route to a sixth-place finish at the NCAA Division III Championship meet, earning All-American honors in the process.
Burnam became the 26th Wilmington athlete and the first hurdler in 20 years to earn All-American status by crossing the line in 51.82 seconds. He did so in what was one of the toughest races the event had seen in quite some time.
“This year was probably the fastest 400 hurdles for Division III in at least 10 years,” Burnam said. “My time when I first broke the record had made it every single year within the last 10 years, this year it was 19th or so. This year, it took a sub-52 to get All-American.”
Burnam missed out on a chance to run in the race last season, finishing as the first runner not to advance to the national championships. To not only make the race as a senior but to place in the top eight was a “humbling” experience for the former Lion.
“It was humbling, to be honest,” Burnam said. “All these years of hard work, and then last year being the first spot out of nationals and this year going and breaking the record multiple times, it was a humbling experience. It proves that if you set your mind to it and work hard, anything can be achieved.”
Combs said he felt that Burnam could turn into a strong performer while at Wilmington, but he wasn’t sure about just how high Burnam could finish.
“I don’t know about the podium, but I’ve always felt that he had that kind of potential,” Burnam said. “Last year he was the first person to not make the national meet in the 400 meter hurdles, so from a guy to go from that to being sixth in the country, that’s a pretty big ask of anybody. We always said that sometimes it takes that first year to go and learn the process, get over your nerves and see how everything shakes down at the national meet, then the second time you go back and you have a shot to make All-American. I think he realized he doesn’t have that chance, it was his senior year. He really took advantage of it.”
Burnam said he felt nervous throughout the build up to the preliminary race, but just before the gun fired, he suddenly felt calmer.
“They took us out to a little bullpen area 20 minutes before we ran,” Burnam said. “It was hot, and I was watching these other people. My mind automatically goes to the worst possible scenario. What if I trip, what if this happens, what if this happens. Right when the starter said set, I just feel like this weight has been lifted off my back. I win that heat and post the second-fastest qualifying time for the event, which was pretty cool.”
The same thing happened a little later in the finals, but again Burnam was able to overcome it.
“The finals were the same thing,” Burnam said. “I thought, if I just go and run, I only have to beat one person to be an All-American. I was so nervous. I just remember the coach telling me ‘Hey, if you just go and do what you know you can do and control what you can control, you’re going to do great.’ I’m remembering that as I get in the box, and it again felt like the weight was lifted off. I didn’t have to be nervous, because all my training has led me up to this point. I’m just as nervous as these guys are.”
Burnam said he didn’t feel too fatigued during the race, but he also thought he wasn’t really running all that fast.
“It was a pretty smooth race, honestly,” Burnam said. “In a lot of races, people just look so fatigued, but as I’m running, I didn’t feel tired. I’ve never been in a position where I was so far back in the pack. Even when I ran at Ohio State against all the Division I people, I was never too far back. I was like, ‘Am I running this slow, honestly?’ I finished the race and I was kind of upset with myself, and then I see the first place time. That was really fast. My time comes up a couple places later, and I was like ‘Did I honestly just do that?’ I was so excited. It was all I could do to hold back, I had tears of joy. What a way to go out.”
Wilmington head coach Ron Combs couldn’t be at the race with Burnam, as he was attending his son’s high school graduation. That didn’t stop him from watching his runner compete in the event.
“I had a conflict, my son was a senior and graduating from high school while he was at the national meet,” Combs said. “Our assistant coach took him to the meet. I was watching on the live feed in my living room, my wife and I were jumping up and down in the living room watching while he was running in the prelims. It was tough, I wanted to be there and see it live, but it was still really neat. I still had all the emotions and all the nerves you get as a coach.”
Burnam’s passion for track and field could be traced back to a young age.
“When I was four or five years old, I was at my grandma’s house,” Burnam said. “She had some lawn chairs set up, and I said ‘I bet I can run and jump over those,’ and she was like, ‘No, you can’t.’ I did it, and I fell in love with hurdling.”
Burnam noted that he wasn’t the best hurdler throughout middle school, but he improved throughout, making the state tournament as a senior at New Richmond. When it came time to move to the collegiate level, he chose Wilmington due to a few personal connections.
“My high school football coach used to coach football with Wayne Stacy, the throws coach at Wilmington,” Burnam said. “He recommended that I go up for a visit. My sister went to school there and I didn’t think anything of it. I went and watched them practice one day, and I fell in love with the program.”
Combs said Burnam has changed since he joined the team, stepping up to become a leader for the squad.
“He’s grown a lot as a person,” Combs said. “When he came into the team, we had some pretty strong leaders, and he was just one of the guys. He was a freshman with a lot of potential, and he’s just blossomed. He’s become more vocal and more of a leader, he’s really stepped up.”
“He’s not a guy that gets into kids faces and yells or anything like that, he leads by example every day,” Combs said. “He’s very workman like, he does what he needs to do at practice. He listens to Coach Wolf very well and does what he’s asked to do. It’s been fun to watch him.”
The finish capped off quite the final month for Burnam, who was on a roll through the last month of the season, according to Combs.
“His last month of the season was just as good as any athlete we’ve had at Wilmington, outside of the kids who have won championships for us,” Combs said. “He won the conference meet in dominant fashion, made it look almost easy in one of the toughest conferences in the country. Then he went to Kentucky and finished second in bad conditions against mostly Division I kids. He set the school record and ran the eighth best time in the country in the last chance meet, then he ran the second-fastest time in the prelims. The last few weeks, he was on all cylinders, and it was so much fun as a coach. We all want the kids to have this kind of success, and to see how confident and how much fun he was having in the last month of the season was a joy to watch.”
That success in the last month of the season could be attributed to a change in strategy that came from a coaching change. Kyle Wolf, who previously coached the pole vaulters at Wilmington, coached Burnam in his senior campaign. Combs said the change may have been met with skepticism early on, but once the results started coming in, things changed.
“I think he laid out a great road map for the kids,” Combs said. “Initially, I think they were like ‘Hey, this is different, this is new’ and they weren’t really sure about it. When they watched how they did over the last month of the year and how [Burnam] did at the national meet, hopefully that gives them a belief and a confidence going into next year.”
Burnam said he felt a difference from this time last season.
“Last year, about that time, I was fatigued,” Burnam said. “I had no gas left in the tank and I was just trying to get through. This year, I felt completely fresh, like I could run the whole summer.”
Now that his collegiate career is over, Burnam said he’s thought about what he wants to do next. While continuing his track and field career is an option, he also has been thinking about how he can help the next generation of athletes.
“I’m thinking about coaching track a little bit,” Burnam said. “Taking the knowledge that I got and what coaches have told me and what I’ve learned and push that forward to other kids and hope that I could change some life like my coaches changed mine.”
Burnam finished with a bit of advice for any athlete, regardless of sport.
“If you ever have doubt in what you’re doing or what the coaches are putting you through, if you don’t understand why, just know that they know what’s best for you,” Burnam said. “They have a good plan. Trust the process. If I didn’t, and trust me, there were times where I was like ‘We did this last week, why are we doing the same workouts over and over?’ Then meet day comes, and I do what I did, and that’s why. Just trust the process. God has a plan for everyone. Don’t ever get discouraged, just know that things will go your way if you just stick to the program.”
Reach Garth Shanklin via email at email@example.com or via phone at 513-732-2511 ext. 112.