His run at state was doomed from the moment he had to borrow purple Spandex shorts from a female teammate.
Cortney Watkins didn’t realize he had left his Hickman track shorts back in Columbia until about five minutes before he was set to compete in the 110-meter hurdle prelims.
Ebony Kimmins, a fellow hurdler who now competes for Columbia College, tossed him her Spandex shorts so that he had the necessary uniform to compete.
“It was actually kind of bad,” Watkins said. “Have you ever worn Spandex before? It definitely is not pleasurable.”
That tight squeeze was not even the worst of it.
Watkins came into his first state meet a sophomore with high hopes. He left having finished last after two falls during his run. But this experience humbled him, refocused him and has put him in a prime spot to win a state title in hurdles this spring as a junior.
It wasn’t the first hurdle that tripped him up. That went well. But he started so fast that it messed up his timing and steps.
When the fourth hurdle arrived — smack.
Watkins hit the track. He bear-crawled to try and regain his footing. He had to keep moving to have a shot at maintaining his pace.
The next hurdle — same result.
Watkins realized he would not be able to regain the momentum he had. So he began to jog.
He wanted nothing to do with the photographer who approached him as he sauntered to the finish line. Watkins was going to finish, no matter how humiliating.
Watkins said it pains him each time he re-watches this scene that happened in a matter of about 16 seconds. He has watched the footage more than a dozen times.
The first viewing came shortly after he ran.
“I kind of got emotional because I knew I kind of let the team down,” he said. “I was ranked pretty high going into state, so I was expecting to do pretty good.”
That expectation got him in trouble. Hickman track and field coach Stewart Johnson wasn’t waiting around for it to catch up to Watkins, but Johnson was not surprised that it did.
Johnson said Watkins became a bit too enamored with his success as a sophomore and lost focus.
His teammates saw it, too.
“Last year, he knew he was good, and he would joke around a lot in practice sometimes,” Hickman sophomore Talin Kemp said. “You could tell he got woken up when he fell during those hurdles.”
Watkins has always been a jokester. Kemp beamed and suppressed a laugh when the topic of Watkins came up.
He immediately thought of the times Watkins shoots Sour Patch Kids candies into teammates mouths as if they are basketballs during downtime at meets.
The playful side of Watkins hasn't disappeared this year. He just has better timing, Johnson said.
“When he gets in the zone, he puts his headphones on and he goes and does his work to get ready for an event,” Johnson said. “That I have seen is a different thing and is really good.”
Kemp and sophomore Isaac Young like Watkins’ fun side, but they have come to appreciate his newfound work ethic, too.
“He is always going and making himself better,” Kemp said. “You can tell when he’s practicing, he’s doing it at 100 percent. I wish I could do it like that.”
That work ethic in practice has translated to plenty of success in competition. Watkins’ 14.52-second time in the 110 hurdles has him ranked second in Missouri, according to TRXC Timing.
He’s fifth in the 300 hurdles. Just in the past few weeks, he won the 110 and 300 hurdles at the Capital City Relays and the Ladue Invite.
Young, who also competes in hurdles, said it is Watkins’ fearlessness that makes him a successful hurdler.
Young likes to watch Watkins compete, but he admits it is not easy to watch.
“He throws himself at the hurdles,” Young said. “I do not have the stuff it takes to do that. He is scary to watch. He just hurdles himself a million miles an hour. I love watching him compete in the hurdles, but it looks like he is going to crash every time. But it looks flawless when he does it.”
Young expects Watkins to be back at state because of this approach to running hurdles. Yes, the same approach and intensity that made Watkins’ 2017 state experience one to forget.
He could very well fall over a hurdle again. Such is the nature of the sport.
He just wants another crack at a state title and a chance at fixing his mistake.
“Then, it’s going to be golden,” he said.
Just don’t forget your shorts, Cortney.