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Keith Hayes: Hurdling into UK history

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hayesflo.jpgKeith Hayes successfully battled through multiple injuries en route to one of the best seasons in UK track and field history, but a loving threat from an Olympic Medalist might have been the biggest reason he was so successful the past few weeks.

Following a loss in confidence resulting from a hamstring injury at the Southeastern Conference Championships, Hayes got a phone call from an even more decorated athlete: the 1992 Olympic Silver Medalist in the 100-meter hurdles. That former world-class hurdler also happened to be the wife of Hayes' head coach, LaVonna Floreal.

That drop in self-belief was quickly dispensed with after Hayes received a stern talking-to, which included that threat.

The sprint hurdler sent off a string of tweets shortly after he suffered the injury expressing disappointment about missing two SEC finals and doubting his prospects for recovering in time for the NCAA Outdoor Championships, which were just two weeks away.

Soon after seeing those tweets LaVonna Floreal gave Hayes a call. 

"After the setback at SECs we had a good talk and to be honest my wife actually called him," UK coach Edrick Floreal said. "She told him, 'I'm an Olympic Silver Medalist and if you ever do that again I will personally kick your butt. You don't that, I don't care if your leg is broken and blood is pouring out of it.' "

That conversation was apparently just what Hayes needed as the senior ended up clocking a season-best time in one of track and field's most grueling events, the 400m hurdles, just 11 days later. He then qualified for the NCAA Semifinals with another season-best time in the 110m hurdles two days after that.

Hayes would go on to reach his first NCAA Outdoor Championship Final in the 110m hurdles where he finished fourth, but his road to All-America status was filled with even higher obstacles than the 42-inch barriers on the track.

Indeed Hayes enjoyed perhaps the best hurdles season, and by extension career, in UK track and field history in 2013. He was All-American in the 60m hurdles indoors setting the school record in the process before he broke the UK 110m hurdles record at the NCAA Championships.

Hayes lowered that all-conditions record to 13.30 seconds last weekend at the United States Track and Field Championships where he ran alongside the world-record holder and 2012 Olympic Gold and Silver Medalists, among others.

Performing on the biggest stage

After what Hayes himself would admit was a difficult indoor season, he came through when the pressure was greatest time and again.
Keith Hayes at the NCAA Championships (Spencer Allen, Sports Image Wire)

Entering the last weekend of the indoor season Hayes had yet to produce one of the national top-16 times required to earn a spot at the NCAA Championships in the 60m hurdles. Yet Hayes was undeterred competing with one last chance to qualify for NCAAs.

He showed as much when he broke two-time Olympian Mikel Thomas' 60m hurdles record during the semifinal heat to post the nation's No. 9 time and make the NCAA Indoor Championship field. 

At NCAAs, Hayes lowered his personal-best time to 7.69 in the semifinal and then picked up First-Team All-America status in the final.

He also displayed just how much doing well for the team meant to him as he was the UK men's team's only participant at the NCAA Indoor Championships. He ensured the Wildcats didn't get shut out at the National Championships with a top-eight finish to get UK on the team scoreboard.

Indeed Hayes' indoor performance prompted his head coach to call him a "one-man team" in a plea for more Wildcats to perform at the NCAA Championship level.

Producing top performances on the biggest stage - in fact record-breaking ones - when the pressure was greatest became a trend for Hayes.

"The cool thing about Keith is the more the tension rises the more he focuses," Floreal said. "Some people lose sight of what's important when the tension rises. That's the difference between the great ones and the other ones. In the heat of the moment they still stay true to the process. In the end if they can just repeat to themselves the things they've done and how confident and ready they are they'll be fine."

He went on to break another of Thomas' school records, this time outdoors in the 110m hurdles, as he ran 13.32 to reach the NCAA Championship final. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that Hayes had run season-best times in two events at the NCAA Preliminary Rounds, less than two weeks after suffering an injury that often lingers with sprinters for weeks if not months.

"Breaking Mikel's records meant a lot to me because I know what an impressive career he has had," Hayes said. "I really enjoyed training with him during my first season at UK. He texted me congratulations after I got the 60m hurdles record. We still have a great relationship. It means a lot when you get a record that belonged to someone who has been to two Olympic Games."

Reaching new heights under Floreal

While Hayes had enjoyed an impressive career before his senior season - he was a three-time All-American going into 2013 - he reached a new level of success in Floreal's first year at the helm of the UK program.

Hayes drastically improved in 2013, but making the adjustment to a new coach didn't happen overnight. 

"I had to buy in," Hayes said. "I didn't do it smoothly at first because I second-guessed myself coming off injury having redshirted last year on my mind, but it came together."

When Floreal began coaching Hayes, the first step was finding the best way to communicate with one of the team's only athletes with All-America credentials. In Hayes, Floreal inherited an accomplished athlete coming off a foot injury that kept him out for the entire 2012 season.

Floreal is happy to admit that one of the biggest challenges in coaching hurdlers is striking the right balance between working on technical race elements and encouraging athletes to relax so they don't stress about executing the technical aspects of a race.

Striking the right chord in Hayes' training proved to be a unique challenge for the UK coach.

"There are some adjustments you have to make," Floreal said. "The hurdles are so complicated that you have to make some changes. Some athletes require the information, but others require the confidence and the information is not that important.

"When you come in and look at what he's accomplished you're like that guy needs a lot of information, we've got to get him technically sound. Then we realized we just needed to give him confidence and when we did that you started to see the results."

Perhaps the greatest example of Floreal's coaching choice paying off was Hayes' school record during the final regular-season meet indoors.

Floreal in fact did not travel with Hayes to Virginia Tech, instead having assistant coach Roderick Dotts make the trip alongside the veteran hurdler.

"It was one of those things where me and Coach Flo had a conversation and decided I may have been struggling because I was overthinking it," Hayes said. "I needed to be more comfortable. He sent Coach Dotts with me to chill and have fun with it. We did everything under the sun to try not to think about that race."

While Floreal stayed in Lexington as his hurdler was off getting ready to run a personal-best time and book a spot in the NCAA Championship field, the two did remain in contact.

"By that point in the season he just had to figure it out for himself," Floreal said about his leap of faith. "We texted back and forth that whole day where he'd tell me he just finished his warm-up, how he was feeling good and I just said 'great.' There was nothing I could do except nod my head. 

"If I would've gone with him to that last-chance meet I would have just been a crutch. My not being there helped him kind of figure things out."

Hayes earned a great deal of his coach's trust that weekend in Blacksburg, and he cashed it in at the Heart of the Bluegrass Classic, Kentucky's first home outdoor meet since 1997.

On top of being the first outdoor competition in Lexington in 16 years, the UK track and field program also celebrated Senior Day for the first time ever.

Given the novelty of the day, Hayes wanted to perform for the home fans as much as he could. As such, he asked Floreal to enter him in four events, despite the fact that one of the season's biggest meets, the Penn Relays, was just a week away.    

That level of trust has certainly paid off in 2013.

"It's become more of a father-son relationship," Hayes said. "He has expectations of me, but he doesn't always have to tell me. He will tell me 'you know what to do, right?' That comes with being a senior. 

"It's really good to know when he's confident in me. Before he used to be very technical with me, but he realized I think a lot when I'm training and racing. I've been running four events every weekend and I like it. I love to compete especially when I can hear my teammates cheering me on."

Hurdles along the journey

Despite all his success in 2013, many goals remain unmet.

By all accounts - in terms of reaching goals - he came up just short of a major one this past weekend at the USA Championships where he placed 16th overall in arguably the world's deepest National Championship fields.

The senior finished second in his USA Championship prelim heat, ahead of the aforementioned defending World Champion and 2012 Olympic Silver Medalist Jason Richardson to reach the semifinal as the fifth-fastest qualifier.

Races with U.S. World Championship team berths on the line are not decided in the prelims, however. Hayes learned that the hard way at his first major race competing head-to-head with world-class professionals.

He was unluckily drawn into a stacked semifinal heat, which featured Richardson, World Record-holder and reigning Olympic Gold Medalist Aries Merritt and former American Record-Holder David Oliver.

Hayes got out of the blocks about as well as any of the top professionals and was right there with all three midway through the semifinal race before he began hitting hurdles, and eventually did not finish.

The disappointing result left the Wildcat alumnus looking for more in future races and seasons.

Despite the tough end to his UK career, LaVonna Floreal offered up some more advice at the first sign of Hayes venting via Twitter on Sunday evening. Floreal (@SilverMedal2) told her talented protégé (@HurdlingYoMamma) he was just beginning his "hurdling" journey. 

Indeed the next step in that journey remains to be taken, but given the trajectory of his career in recent months the future certainly looks bright.

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