Chancise Watkins yearns to be La Verne’s Olympic hopeful
by Julian Mininsohn
photography by Emily Bieker
It is a 96-degree day in the shade at the University of La Verne and even hotter on the track. The men’s track and field team sits underneath a football goal post, hoping it provides enough shade to hide them from the scorching sun. However, there is no escaping the heat on this day. While the track team waits for practice to begin, senior Chancise Watkins stands drenched in sweat with his head perfectly straight and eyes looking forward. He has already been running. He sprints, walks for a short rest, then sprints again. It is all part of his daily routine. Dressed from head to toe in cherry red athletic gear, he is not hard to miss. Unless you blink. “I run every day, even Sundays,” Chancise says. “It’s the adrenaline.”
Prestigious La Verne career
Chancise, 22, has been running since he was a rambunctious 3-year-old boy growing up in Blythe, California. He was raised by his grandparents and tried multiple sports, but track seemed to be the right lane. “I was a really hyperactive kid,” he says. Basketball and football had too much stoppage, and with track I was constantly moving.” Chancise attended Palos Verdes High School, competing in state championships and breaking school records. He did not lose a single race his junior or senior year.
Now at the University of La Verne, Chancise is in his final collegiate campaign. Last season, he earned Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Athlete of the Week honors four times. He also gained 2013-2014 West Region Men’s Athlete of the Year recognition after claiming titles in the 200 meters, 400 meters, and 4×100 relay races at the SCIAC Championships, all while setting personal records in each event. Going into the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field National Championships last season, Chancise was the top ranked competitor in the 400-meters and ranked third in the 200-meters. At the national preliminary races, Chancise’s time of 20.99 seconds broke a school and stadium record in the 200-meters. On the same day, he recorded a 400-meter time of 47.02 seconds, earning first place in the preliminary race. Chancise also won a national championship in the 4×100 relay. “His work ethic is incredible,” says Pat Widolff, head track and field coach at the University of La Verne. “We have a lot of kids who work hard, but he has worked as hard as anybody I’ve ever had. That’s his legacy to me.” Chancise’s prestigious college career will end with at least one national title and six All-American honors. “As time went on, I felt all of it starting to click,” Chancise says. “Overall, as an athlete, I think I accomplished my goals in SCIAC.”
Olympic guide runner
Chancise trained as a guide runner this year for David Brown, a Paralympic runner who aims to compete in the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. “It just started over the summer. I was thrown into it,” he says. “I’ve never done guide running before, but I did my research on it. It’s more difficult than I thought it was. I have to run how someone else runs, and everyone runs differently.” A guide runner allows a blind or partially blind partner to run safely without having to worry about obstacles. In Paralympic guide running, each runner holds one end of a short rubber figure-eight loop made from physiotherapy tubing stuck together with electrical tape. Essentially, it is a three-legged race. They must both move as one to be successful.
David is from Chula Vista, California and is arguably the fastest Para Track and Field athlete in the world. He won gold medals in the 2012 U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Trials in both the 100 and 200-meter races. David also competed in the Parapan American Games, the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships, and the IBSA World Youth Championships in 2011. David’s 100-meter time of 10.92 seconds and 200-meter time of 22.44 seconds are both world records. He is also the first visually-impaired athlete to break 11 seconds in the 100-meter race. In other words, he is faster than some sighted runners.
Paralympic and Olympic aspirations
Chancise was brought in after David learned Chancise’s background in the 400-meters. “It means a lot to me because he wants to be great also, and he is depending on me,” Chancise says. “Our ultimate goal is to break the 400-meter record.” Chancise and David have raced three times since being paired up. This past summer, after just one week of practicing, the duo took first place in two races in San Diego and second place in a race at UCLA. “We connected right away. We did everything together,” Chancise says. “We had to practice together; we had to run together, talk after practice, talk before practice just to get to know each other inside and out.” The focal part of their training is not the conditioning or speed. It is about building trust. “The synchronization is the biggest part,” Chancise says. “He has to be comfortable with me. If something goes wrong with me, he gets thrown off completely. I am basically the left side of his body and his eyes. If we don’t trust each other, it won’t work.”
Chancise is hopeful their efforts will qualify them to the next Paralympics. The Paralympic events are divided into classes based on the athlete’s specific disability. David is categorized in the T11 class specific to visually-impaired track and field athletes. To reach their goal, they will have to record a time of 51.44 seconds to qualify for the 400-meter race. “He’s been to the Olympics before so this isn’t his first rodeo, but this is mine. It’s a blessing, so I’m 100 percent down to do it.”
Chancise plans to graduate with a degree in speech communications January 2015. Yet, with one semester of eligibility left, he will still be running in the winter for La Verne. Once his track career runs out, he wants to become an ESPN analyst or sports talk show host. For now, Chancise is focused on the one thing that has always made him happy: running. “It’s the energy I get from running. I just feel free. When I’m running, I don’t worry about homework, girls or stress. When I’m on that track, everything goes away.”
He is currently training for the 2016 Olympics as an individual runner in 200-meter and 400-meter events. To first qualify for the trials, he must beat his own record. This means running 0.39 seconds faster in the 200-meter event and 1.02 seconds in the 400-meter event. Once in the trials, Chancise must place top three in each event to make the Olympic squad. “Ever since I knew what the Olympics were, I’ve always wanted to go. I’ve been working for it since I was 3 years old.”
Paul Turner has been a friend and teammate since Chancise was a freshman. Now, as an assistant coach for the La Verne track team, Paul has seen Chancise on two sides of the spectrum. “He’s a first-one-in, last-one-to-leave type of dude,” Paul says. “He cares about the sport and his craft. I can see him going to the Olympics.” There is no telling how far track will take Chancise. He says his biggest competition is ultimately himself. Still, his desire to raise the bar is endless. Chancise continues to run with his head straight and eyes forward.
Although he is done running for the day, his training is not done. After two rigorous running sessions, Chancise heads to the weight room for strength and conditioning exercises. He needs to get his body stronger as the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics come closer. And as the days go by, not only does Chancise’s body get stronger, but his desire to succeed as well.