Freshman Robert Heppenstall became the school's first-ever ACC champion in the 800m.
May 17, 2016
This article was originally published in the May 2016 edition of Gold Rush.
By Jay Reddick
Robert Heppenstall was just being realistic on that February day.
The freshman runner had qualified for the 800-meter finals at the ACC Indoor meet. He had reached his goal for the weekend, and everything else was just a bonus.
“I went into the meet with very low expectations,” Heppenstall said. “I didn’t have a lot of pressure. Any performance would have been okay with me, but my goal was to make the final.”
After all, he thought, I’m just a freshman. I’m here to get better, and my time will come.
But once you step to the starting line, any notions of age, class or experience go away. And that’s how Heppenstall became a conference champion that day. His time of 1:47.35 was a school record and an ACC meet record.
“Crossing the [finish] line was just an incredible feeling,” Heppenstall said. “All of a sudden, all of this emotion overflows on you. It was incredible.”
Heppenstall was an 800-meter specialist going all the way back to high school in Hamilton, Ontario. He was the three-time Canadian national champion in the event and raced in the Junior World Championships and the Junior Pan Am Games.
But he didn’t see himself winning conference championships and qualifying for national meets with the Deacons–yet.
“Going into any season, I map out goals, long term and short term,” Heppenstall said. “This year, I want to develop as a runner and gain experience at this level. I’ve gotten a little peep at what world-level competition looks like, but not in college. So this year was about development, rather than pure performance. I’m not going to [set a personal record] in every race.”
Heppenstall’s approach works wonders for him at the biggest moments, but it sounds totally backward until you think about it. He said the finals of the highest-profile races are actually when he feels the least pressure.
“I’m more nervous in the lower-level meets, because I’m expected to win or do well–when I don’t, it’s a disappointment,” Heppenstall said. “It’s very common for me to get more nervous before the heats of a big meet than before the finals, because anything can happen. You have to finish in the top three of your heat or have one of the next two fastest times–if your heat is too fast or too slow, it can mess you up. I tend to overthink those.
“In the finals, I like that it’s just one run to go. Everything is in front of you, and there’s not much more to think about. That’s when I’m at my best.”
Need more proof? Check Heppenstall’s performances during this indoor season. Third place at the Camel City Meet. Second place (and a full second faster) at the Virginia Tech Doc Hale Elite Meet a week later. His first win of the season came in the ACC heat, then he cut two full seconds off his time to win the conference.
He even had enough left to get through an NCAA national heat and grab a fifth-place finish in the NCAA Championship, earning All-American honors.
“That’s so far beyond my expectations,” Heppenstall said. “Getting All-American was just the cherry on top.”
Five years ago, if you had asked Heppenstall where he expected to be right now, the answer might have revolved around basketball. He started playing competitively in grade six, emulating Toronto Raptors favorites Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, and still calls it his first love.
But as he started to win national high-school titles, he realized his future would be different.
“I talked to my dad about it during my junior year,” Heppenstall said. “He talked about how track was where I had had the most success and where I would have the most longevity, and I was on board with that.
“I still love basketball. I shoot around whenever I can, to stay in shape.”
He’s even a good talent scout for hoops; he said his NCAA tournament bracket had North Carolina vs. Villanova meeting in the finals. He had UNC winning–but Deacons fans, he can explain that.
“When the ACC does well in the tournament, the money trickles down to us, right?” Heppenstall said. “It was great to have a team in the finals.”
So besides his demeanor, what’s Heppenstall’s secret? How did he get so good, so fast? He said Wake Forest has a lot to do with it.
“First of all, coach [John] Millar’s philosophy is a good one,” he said. “With some coaches, it’s ‘my way or the highway,’ but he’s very flexible and knows that every athlete needs a certain kind of training. I’m all about speed work and shorter intervals–I’m getting my mileage up, but slowly. It’s a culture where I don’t have to do anything drastic to fit a certain mold.”
The training facilities, along with the strength and conditioning program, play a big part, he said. But beyond that, it’s about his teammates.
“It’s great to be around people who want to go train after practice is over,” Heppenstall said. “We all get along well, and we push each other. It’s made me do extra stuff I never did back home, and that’s helped me get to a higher level faster than I thought was possible.”
Now it’s time for the next step. With an ACC championship and an All-American citation, will Heppenstall give in to higher expectations and more pressure? He thinks not.
“I just want to do what I’ve been doing and slowly get better,” Heppenstall said. “If I can lower my outdoor personal best by one one-hundredth of a second, that’s a success for me. But if things fall into place like they did at Indoors, there’s no telling what can happen.”