Track meets used to terrify Hannah Waller. “Scared shook,” she called it. She couldn’t focus, and she got so nervous she wasn’t able to give everything she had against the best competition in the nation.
“I would be like, ‘I know this is a fight-or-flight response, but I don’t know know what to do with it,’” Waller explained. “So I would just get in my head and start to overanalyze. I was basically defeating myself before I had even given myself a chance.”
In track and field, athleticism can only take an athlete so far. At a certain point, the talent is generally on a level playing field. In the case of Oregon athletics, the competitors are all D-I athletes, but not everyone can package the emotions to win a race when it matters.
Waller, a junior from Clovis, California, has approached this season with a different mentality. For her, racing, which once possessed such a challenge, is now much more fun and has allowed for personal growth. Waller ran 52.54 seconds in her first 400-meter race of the season at the Razorback Invitational in Arkansas, just one-tenth of a second slower than her previous personal best. The time is No. 2 in the nation.
“I think the more times she runs that race, the better she is going to get,” head coach Robert Johnson said.
Waller competes in multiple sprinting events for the Ducks, mainly the 60 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters. But the 400 meters is her favorite and her best event. Last season at the Don Kirby Invitational in New Mexico, Waller ran the No. 3 in Oregon history in the 400 meters, going 52.44 seconds.
Waller has embraced the competition and enjoys the process of pushing herself further than what was she thought possible.
“I find the work that we do will carry with us outside of track,” she said. “They’re going to carry with us through life because they teach you to work hard and be uncomfortable.”
Waller struggled with nerves for nearly two years at Oregon. She believes her breakthrough came after qualifying for the NCAA championships, both indoor and outdoor. It provided her a confidence boost that has carried over into this season. She earned first-team All-America honors as a part of the 4x400 relay team, which placed third at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in 2018.
“I just think getting out of your comfort zone is really important though, just with anything in life,” Waller said. “Because you can’t stay stuck in the same place the whole time. You have to try new things. You have to experience different types of hurt.”
Johnson was impressed with the performance in Arkansas and expects more of the same from her as the season continues.
“I told her that if she continues on the path that she’s going, she’s going to be surprised.”
Follow August Howell on Twitter @howell_august