For senior Will Robinson, his greatest memory over four years of running track at USC is coming in third place.
He was the anchor in the 4×400 relay race in the opening meet of his senior season. He had one goal — no one would pass him. The second the baton slapped into his hand, Robinson pushed, determined to keep up with the two runners ahead of him.
He ran out of gas at the 300-meter mark, legs pumping, lungs burning. That’s when he began to hear again.
Before then, Robinson ran in silence. A combination of adrenaline and focus blocked out every scream, every shout from the crowd. But as he lost steam, the noise of his teammates began to wash over Robinson in waves.
Above it all, he heard the voice of volunteer coach and two-time Olympic gold medalist DeeDee Trotter hollering his name, urging him to finish as strong as he started. His teammates chanted, begging him to hold his spot. So he did.
They took third. Robinson took the baton with his team in third, and he kept them there for 400 meters. After the meet, the coaching staff praised Robinson in front of the rest of the team. He kept his head down, his smile small. He didn’t run for the praise. He was just doing what he always does — being the best teammate possible.
Robinson isn’t the fastest runner on the team. Far from it. His best marks in the 800-meter race are significantly slower than some of his teammates. He’s never won a race, and he won’t make the Nationals roster.
But who ever said speed is all that matters?
For Robinson — soon-to-be Marine, devoted Christian, walk-on track athlete — there’s a whole lot more to running track than putting one foot in front of another. Track is about dedication to himself and his team. It’s about the communication and support passed on from one runner to another. Most importantly, it’s about the bonds he creates and the inspiration he cultivates every day. That focus on impactful relationships is what drives Robinson on and off the track.
On a good day, he’s busy. On a bad day, busy doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Sitting on the bleachers overlooking Cromwell Field, Robinson counts on his fingers all that he has to do today. He’s already had a science lab, a meeting for ROTC, an interview for a paper. The watch snugly fit on his left wrist blinks — it’s slightly past 10 a.m. In less than an hour, he’ll leave for bible study, then more classes, more interviews.
It’s a long day, he says. He promises they’re not all like this.
Robinson is used to getting the same question, on repeat — how does he do it all? His answer, true to character, is humble and boils down to a simple combination of hard work, eliminating distractions and always being kind.
In reality, this means setting 5:30 a.m. alarms to make it to NROTC meetings and hunching over lab reports late at night. But Robinson will adamantly say that he doesn’t do that much more than others, that his own story isn’t unique. He’s figured out the best schedule and lifestyle for himself.
It’s simple, he says. It’s just not easy.
Welcome to the life of a young man who splits his time between three passions and centers them all around his core values — a faith in God, friendships and giving his all every day. In his final year of college, Robinson has his life figured out. In a few months, he’ll graduate with a degree in human biology and move to Quantico, Virginia, to finish his training as a Marine. But the last four years have been a journey of finding himself, his faith and his place at USC.
In the first semester of his freshman year, Robinson was in a rut. He was struggling with school, but mostly Robinson felt that he hadn’t found his rhythm. He was an athlete in high school, running cross country and track and he was used to a comfortable routine. Halfway through his first year at USC, Robinson simply hadn’t found that.
So he walked into the track office and asked for a chance to walk on. The answer wasn’t definite, but Robinson kept coming back and asking again and again.
They never said yes. But they also never said no. And when the first meet of the season rolled around, Robinson’s name was on the list.
That was the beginning of his four-year love affair with the track team. Realistically, he shouldn’t have made the roster, shouldn’t have been kept on it when the coaching staff rolled over the next year. But he was. Since then, Robinson has dedicated himself to fulfilling his specific, unique role on the team — competitor, supporter, motivator.
Ask Robinson about track, and he’ll tell you about his team. He prides himself on knowing his teammates by name, knowing their schedules, their majors and their interests. He knows who is having a good week and who’s struggling or nursing a bum ankle.
Later in the week, he’ll lead them in a Bible study at Heritage Hall as part of Athletes in Action. He’ll cherish seeing a different side of his teammates, focused on prayer and reflection. Each Wednesday, he’ll lead the same group, hoping to strengthen a part of each athlete that has nothing to do with lifting weights or running sprints.
“I’m not perfect in any way, but I want to be someone who helps others first,” Robinson said. “And I feel like, if I can help someone in their walk in faith, that’s the greatest I can really do for another person.”
That love for supporting others stems from a single source — Robinson’s younger brother, Daniel.
At the age of 2, Daniel was diagnosed as autistic. He’s mild on the spectrum, Robinson says, but the experience made him grow up just a little faster. From a young age, Robinson understood that if Daniel needed help, it was his responsibility to give him a hand. Sometimes that meant helping tie his shoelaces or button his shirt. Other times, it meant coaching Daniel in social situations, letting him know how to behave or what to say when the words didn’t come easily for his little brother.
It meant being the odd one out. It meant being too mature, too understanding for his age. He was weird, Robinson said, in the way that he worked a little harder and cared a little more about others, even in elementary school.
He and his brother never fought. He couldn’t stand that. He couldn’t stand to see his brother belittled. He couldn’t stand to see other kids left out or treated poorly. And the fact that he couldn’t stand any of those things — isolation, bullying — led Robinson to begin a life dedicated to something more.
“That’s my brother and I love him,” Robinson said. “I think I realized from a young age that I wanted to help people in a very tangible way, because I always wanted to look out for him. He taught me how to care for others.”
Ask Robinson what he’ll remember about USC, and he’ll tell you that it’s the feeling of community, of having a family consisting of Christians and runners and Marines and Trojans, a massive, sprawling family that made him feel like he wanted his four years to last forever.
Ask him to give you one favorite memory, and he’ll tell you about an unremarkable moment on an unremarkable day when he was reminded why he’s on this team to begin with. It’s the day he helped Andre De Grasse to the trainer’s room.
This was years before De Grasse’s career sling-shotted him into the spotlight. Robinson had no idea that the runner close to collapsing on the track at his feet would one day become one of the brightest stars for the Canadian Olympic team. He simply reached out a hand, dragged the sprinter to his feet and half-carried him down to the trainer.
Two years later, when De Grasse was preparing to leave USC, he thanked Robinson for helping him.
“I’ll never forget that,” De Grasse told him.
It was funny to Robinson, because until that moment he had almost forgotten about it. To him, that was just another part of being a teammate. But the way De Grasse thanked him, the way that he remembered that kindness after two years of national attention and record-breaking marks — that stuck with Robinson.
De Grasse was a future Olympic champion, but Robinson was the teammate who picked him up before he was anybody. And that meant something. It’s the type of impact that Robinson hopes to keep making on his team, and on anyone who finds their way into his life.
“These are athletes who are known for their split times and their marks,” Robinson said. “I know them as more than that. I know them as people, and that’s really special. If I can touch their lives, if I can touch anyone’s lives, help them through anything, big or small, then I consider that a job well done.”
In a little over a month, Robinson will move multiple time zones away to begin his final Marine training at Quantico. It’s bittersweet, he says. On one hand, he’ll be realizing a dream years in the making. On the other hand, he’ll leave behind everything that has defined his life up until now. He’s not sure which is more powerful.
In a little over a month, everything will change. But for now, Robinson is enjoying the little moments, the last moments. He’s appreciating all that this school, his team and his community have meant to him, how much they have shaped him.
There’s so little time left, he says, and yet so much more to do — qualifying races, the national championships. He wants to cherish these final moments, because they have been the greatest of his life and they have molded him into the man, the runner, the soldier, the friend that he is today.
When this all ends in a few weeks, he will carry those memories, those lessons with him across the country. But for now, he’s not worrying about leaving. He’s just taking it one race at a time.