If there are two things, above all others, that should be known about Northwest track and field freshman sprinter Omar Austin, they’re clear and dependent on one another: he’s a fighter and a winner.
Austin always has been. He’s always had to be a fighter, and being one is what’s helped him — if not forced him — to be a winner. Throughout Northwest’s indoor track and field season, Austin fought each week to win, and he was successful more often than not.
Austin, who coach Brandon Masters dubbed “the fastest freshman in the country,” walked away from his first indoor season with a handful of program records, first place finishes and the NCAA Division II Central Region Indoor Track Athlete of the Year award. Now, in the midst of his first collegiate outdoor season, Austin is pushing for more.
But his tenacity and desire for greatness predate Austin’s time at Northwest. He had both qualities as a defensive back for Blake High School in Tampa, Florida, and well before that growing up in the projects of Newark, New Jersey.
“The part of Jersey where I grew up, that was more of the hood,” Austin said. “That was straight gangs — it’s called Newark, New Jersey — it’s straight violence, straight gangs. It’s basically like the most dangerous part to go, like one of the most dangerous cities in this world.”
The violent crime rate in Newark has been double the national average every year since 2008, according to city-data.com. The chances of being a victim of violent crime in Newark sit at 1 in 110, while the average for the state of New Jersey is just 1 in 437.
Growing up in Newark, Austin said, never deterred him. Instead, it pushed him.
“That environment basically built me. It was like the jungle,” Austin said. “It turned me into who I am and made me a man early. That helped raise me into the man who I am today.”
Today, Austin is a workhorse for Northwest and has provisionally qualified for the Division II National meet in the 200-meter race, though he’s not satisfied with the time of 21.27 seconds he posted at the David Suenram Gorilla Classic in Pittsburg, Kansas, April 13.
Austin is preparing to compete at the Bryan Clay Invitational and Multi in Azusa, California, April 19-20. For Austin, the prospect of qualifying for nationals and competing in California over the weekend is somewhat surreal. He was never supposed to be here, Austin said, and he credits his arrival to his upbringing.
“I look at all my people and none of my friends from back then, none of them really be doing anything,” Austin said. “Everybody in the hoods, in the gangs: they’re still doing that stuff. To see I turned out to have the upper hand and doing something different than I was supposed to do, that makes me feel good. I just keep pushing.”
Even after he realized he could be an athlete at the collegiate level, Austin never planned to be a Division II track star at Northwest. At first, he wanted to play football. He starred as a defensive back in Tampa after moving there from Newark.
Austin realized his talents were better suited for track and field. Football was always more fun for the freshman, but he saw track as something of an outlet to a brighter tomorrow. He pursued it, of course, and wound up where he is now.
“With track, I felt like I was always gifted,” Austin said. “In high school, I wasn’t really good at it. I never really tried, and I never cared, but then I like, ‘I actually do want to try and do something with it,’ after watching Usain Bolt and stuff like that. I felt like I could make it bigger with track than I could with football.”
Austin’s unrelenting desire to compete has been nearly too strong at times. Masters, who is in his first season at the helm for Northwest track, has held Austin back at times at practice and in training in an attempt to save his energy.
“I think the big thing is Omar was always wanting to run and win every rep early in the season,” Masters said. “Maybe it wasn’t the energy system we wanted him to get into, so I had to teach him how to understand that going at a certain rep at a little slower pace is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Over the course of both the indoor and outdoor seasons, Austin has learned. The results speak for themselves. The Newark native was one of seven Bearcats to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships where he posted an All-America performance after finishing the 400-meter race with a time of 47.70.
“He’s a student of the game,” Masters said. “He loves track. He’s very smart, he’s learned a ton and you see it coming out in the track with his performances.”
As much as Newark has driven Austin’s work ethic forward, his biggest motivator isn’t the city he grew up in, nor is it his desire to win. It’s his family.
Austin’s mom, a track athlete in her own right, encouraged her son to pursue the sport and inspired him each day. Growing up, Austin’s mother raised him and his three younger brothers by herself. Austin said his mother and siblings are what push him each day.
“My mom is like my hero,” Austin said. “Even though everybody has a dad, I don’t have a dad technically. My mom played the mom and the dad role, and she’s been through a lot and sacrificed a lot for me to be where I’m at. I love her a lot for everything she does, and I told her I’m going to make it one day and take care of her. And that’s my biggest goal now.”
Austin’s mom and his siblings, who he said he serves as a father figure for, are the reason he practices beyond Masters’ demanding training regime.
They’re the reason Austin works so diligently on perfecting his craft and the reason he wants to break as many program records as he can in the coming weeks. They’re the reason Austin is never satisfied, not even when he finishes in first place and provisionally qualifies for nationals like he did last weekend. They’re the reason he competes so hard, even against himself.
For Austin, his mother and his siblings are everything. They’re the entire reason he’s here. They’re why he wants to be an Olympian after he leaves Northwest. They’re why he wants to make it.
“I want to set a big example for (my brothers), and I want to show my mom that her son can actually do this stuff,” Austin said. “I also want to prove myself right … I’m a fighter. I was raised in the projects. When you’re raised in the environment like that, you’re aggressive. I’m a winner. I don’t like losing. If I lose, I’m going to go home and think about it. Then I’m going to work on getting better so I can win every time I get on the track.”