The first figurative baton passing came 13 years ago. Nine-year-old Erik Hightower kicked and screamed in disgust while being dragged to wheelchair racing practices where Troy Davis was the standard for speed.
The first figurative baton passing came 13 years ago.
Nine-year-old Erik Hightower kicked and screamed in disgust while being dragged to wheelchair racing practices where Troy Davis was the standard for speed.
It worked. Hightower has a tattoo of himself racing on his arm.
The second figurative exchange came two years ago, when a 20-year-old Hightower smashed the U.S. national record in the 100-meter dash. The previous record holder was Davis, his coach.
A third came shortly thereafter. Hightower, a newly minted U.S. record holder, got whipped against international competitors at the World Championships in the Netherlands, which Davis also experienced the hard way a decade prior in Berlin.
A fourth and final exchange will occur today through Sunday at Arizona State’s Sun Angel Stadium, host of the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Trials.
A native of Mesa, Davis, 33, will be in the 100- and 200-meter races for likely the last time. He made the 2000 Paralympic team in Sydney, but with a wife, two young children and a job with IBM, it’s time to coach, not compete.
His pupil, Hightower, 22, will also be in the 100 and 200, plus the 400 and possibly part of two Paralympic relay teams which will likely be determined at Sunday night’s banquet.
Those who win or reach elite qualifying times earn a spot on the U.S. team headed to Beijing for the Summer Games in September.
His parents already bought plane tickets.
“No pressure on me or anything,” he joked.
But there are butterflies.
Hightower has spina bifida, a common affliction in which the spinal cord inexplicably opens during the first few months of pregnancy. He could use crutches if he wanted, but the part-time veterinary student from Glendale finds it easier to use a wheelchair.
Davis has osteogenesis imperfecta, an affliction in which his bones are unusually brittle. He’s broken one of them 100 times in his lifetime, a few times while his mother raised his leg to change diapers.
He tried to walk at age 6, but bones in both legs shattered and that was it, so he’s learned to set his own bones in splints and take off casts.
After competing at the elite level for more than a decade, he spent four years in Los Angeles, but essentially gave up racing for lack of opportunities in L.A.
He — and his competitive itch — returned to the East Valley, where his family resides in Queen Creek. The racing bug returned when he was asked to coach, and was named Coach of the Year by the Mesa Association of Sports for the Disabled in 2007.
By that time, Hightower was the fastest member of the Arizona Heat club racing team, but until Davis returned, there was no one to push him competitively or on the practice track. “Every time I beat him he hears about it,” Hightower said.
Since Davis was a former champion, he took up the cause and got back into competitions for the benefit of both.
“He’s like Sea Biscuit,” Davis said. “He needs someone he can hear and see, and he subconsciously kicks it into another gear.
“I saw how he hated to lose and knowing if I was there to push him, he’d always try to beat me and get to a level he may not have otherwise by himself.”
They’ve trained together regularly ever since. Hightower struggled at a couple of recent international events with vastly different weather than Arizona. Hightower believes he can place among the nation’s elite again this weekend, then soak up the world’s competition and Chinese culture.
He’ll have company to push and prod him.
“Something tells me he’ll get back into it and won’t resist it,” Hightower said of Davis’ dwindling competitive days. “I have a feeling he won’t be able to stay away from it for long.”
Maybe not, Davis joked, if the teacher shows up the student one more time.
“I enjoy watching him succeed as much as me,” Davis said. “It’s nice coming up with a formula, executing it and seeing results. You never want anyone breaking your records, but if someone is going to, who better than the athlete you’re coaching?”