Kyle Clemons said it was like someone had thrown a flash grenade at him.
As he walked through the Olympic Stadium tunnel and onto the track, the former Kansas runner says everything turned to a blur.
“You can’t hear anything,” Clemons said. “You’ve got tunnel vision. It was crazy.”
The next minute ended up being one of the most important of his life. Clemons ran the third leg of the men’s 1,600 relay for the United States in the first round on Aug. 19, helping his team keep the lead before it finished second in the heat and qualified for the finals.
The United States — with Clemons watching from the stands — won the 1,600 relay the next day, which earned Clemons a gold medal he’s been showing off since returning to the States last week.
“At first it was just crazy, thinking I’m even an Olympian,” Clemons said. “Now that I’m a gold medalist after running in the Olympics, it’s slowly but surely settling in.”
Clemons, who qualified for the relay team after finishing sixth in open 400 at the U.S. Olympic Trials, had a stress-filled few days.
He barely slept the night before his race, waking up constantly with heart pounding.
“My anxiety was on another level,” Clemons said.
Because his race was in the 9 p.m. hour locally, he was able to get in a few naps before heading to the stadium. Once arriving, he was so fidgety that he tried to start his warmup two hours before the race.
He was helped by a familiar voice, as KU track and field coach Stanley Redwine repeated one line in particular: “Chill out.” Redwine later walked Clemons through his warmup and gave him encouragement: “You’ve done this a million times. It’s the same size of track. Believe in yourself. Believe in your fitness.”
“I don’t know what I would have done if he wasn’t there,” Clemons said.
The preparation served Clemons well, as he received the baton in first place and also handed it off to teammate David Verburg with the lead intact.
Clemons, who says he “almost forgot how to walk” earlier in the day because of nerves, admits he didn’t run a perfect race. He was able to get out faster than he needed to before falling into a bad habit when he eased up on the final turn.
Though his split time of 44.96 seconds was about a half-second slower than what he’d hoped, it was still good enough.
“The most important thing was just keep my team in the lead, and that’s what I did,” Clemons said. “I can’t be dissatisfied about that.”
The next day, Clemons warmed up with his team on the track for the finals, preparing just in case one of the runners had an injury. He then made his way to the stands to watch the race with Redwine, celebrating as his teammates reclaimed the gold medal in a time of 2:57.30.
Redwine was the first to turn to him afterwards: “Great job, man. You’re an Olympic gold medalist.”
The only bittersweet part, Clemons says, came after that. He had to remain in his seat as his teammates draped American flags over their backs in front of millions on television. He also was not able to stand on the podium when his teammates received their gold medals before the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Clemons still knows how fortunate he is. If he was like former KU teammates Andrea Geubelle and Mason Finley, who competed in the triple jump and discus, his sixth-place showing at the Olympic trials wouldn’t have qualified him for Rio. Instead, because he was part of a relay, he came away with a gold medal.
The hardware hasn’t kept him from future aspirations. The Rowlett, Texas, native plans to continue training in Lawrence while preparing for next year’s World Championships in London.
And after that? The 26-year-old believes he has one more run at the Olympics in him.
“I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface,” Clemons said, “of where I need to be.”