IOWA CITY, Iowa — Aaron Mallett discovered humility on the track even before he officially joined a team.
Mallett was the fastest kid in his class at his St. Louis-area middle school — at least that’s what he thought. After a student named Bryan Westmoreland enrolled at the school, a competition instantly developed between the two.
“In sixth grade he was smoking me,” Mallett said. “I’m like, ‘How did you get so fast?’ ”
Westmoreland’s father coached the St. Louis Flames track squad, and Mallett joined the team. He and Westmoreland became best friends. Getting smoked on the track happened far less frequently for Mallett. Today, it almost never happens.
Mallett, a senior 110-meter hurdler at Iowa, enters this week’s NCAA championship meet as the nation’s top seed in the event. Mallett owns the best time after winning the NCAA West Regional in 13.36 seconds. He’s the favorite to become Iowa’s first male individual national champion since 1998 when Bashir Yamini won the long jump. The last one to win in a running event was Deacon Jones in 1957, in the 2-mile run.
“He plans on winning,” Iowa track & field director Joey Woody said. “That’s been his goal since he stepped on campus, to be a national champion. I’ve never felt like he didn’t have the ability to be a national champion. I’ve always felt he has the tools to be at that level.”
Mallett is the three-time Big Ten champion in his specialty and a four-time All-American in both indoor and outdoor hurdles. At the 2017 Big Ten championships, Mallett cruised to a school-record time of 13.24 seconds. That’s the best time nationally by .12 seconds.
But Mallett is a process guy. That’s how he has become the best. He focuses on the present with an eye on the future.
“It’s my senior year,” Mallett said. “I want to go pro. I want to win nationals. But I’ve got to take it one step at a time. My goal going into Eugene is to make the final. Get there, have fun. Once I make the final, then we can talk national championship.”
Mallett discovered hurdling by chance. Before he was even in high school, a coach saw him jump over a fence to fetch a ball. The coach mentioned hurdling and Mallett took to it. He was far from refined in his technique, but willing to learn.
“I remember my coach made me a PVC pipe hurdle and I would just set that up in my room and put my hands up on the wall and do trail legs for 100 straight,” Mallett said. “If I missed one, you restart them, no matter where I was at. One time I got to 89 and I had to restart. Just doing that kind of muscle memory. The more I did it, the better I got.”
Mallett become one of the best hurdlers in Missouri at McCluer North near St. Louis. He owns school records in the 110 hurdles and 400 hurdles. He won both events at state as a junior and took first in the 300 hurdles as a senior, but he was disqualified in the 110 finals.
Mallett tied for the area’s best time in the 110 hurdles as a senior with Ezekiel Elliott in 13.77 seconds. They competed in different classes at state.
Colleges recruited Mallett hard. His final three choices were Purdue, Kansas and Iowa. The closer he looked at Iowa, the more he realized it was a perfect choice. While at Northern Iowa, Woody won the 1997 NCAA title in the 400 hurdles. He also earned gold medals on the world stage and nearly qualified for the 2000 Olympics.
But more impressive to Mallett was how Woody molded hurdlers. At Iowa, Ethan Holmes and Jordan Mullen became All-Americans in 2013 and Mallett looked at how they improved from high school to the NCAA meet.
“They were pretty good hurdlers,” Mallett said. “But on paper I came in with significant better times than them, so I can’t imagine what he can do with me. I’m running 13.2s, 13.3s, and I never thought I’d be in the position that I’m in now.”
Woody saw Mallett’s high school statistics and was interested. He noticed Mallett’s length and high hips and believed he could make instant strides. Woody was more excited when he noticed Mallett’s dedication off the track and how he watched videos of himself and other hurdlers to make improvements.
“We’ve had a lot of hurdlers in our program that came in with marks not even close to him get to the national meet and had been first-team All-Americans,” Woody said. “So I knew that we had athletes who were able to get to that level that didn’t have the same kind of talent.
“I felt like he was definitely a guy that when I recruited him could be contending to win a national championship.”
Mallett established himself quickly at Iowa by earning All-American status as a sophomore in both indoor and outdoor events. He placed fifth in the 110 hurdles at the NCAA meet that year. But in his junior season, he and Woody started tweaking his form out of the starting blocks and it didn’t work. Mallett said he put too much pressure on himself and finished 14th at nationals.
This year, Mallett is more relaxed and it shows. He has increased his strength and speed, and his times prove it. He considers himself the favorite in Eugene, Ore., but doesn’t display any arrogance. His goals are narrow, as is his focus.
“Just get through nationals first, and go to the U.S. championships and wear the Iowa uniform for the last time proudly,” said Mallett, who also participates on Iowa’s national-qualifying 400-meter relay.
Mallett has eyes toward competing beyond college and battling for the national team, as well as the Olympics in 2020 or 2024.
“The thing about the high hurdles in the U.S. is we’re the best country when it comes to that event,” Woody said. “It’s tough to make a team. But I also believe he’s got the tools to do that. I believe he’s got the ambition and the drive to be patient and make sure every year you continue to progress.”
“I feel like I have so much more to go,” Mallett said. “I’m No. 1, and I still feel like I’m not peaking yet. The sky’s the limit.”
110-meter hurdles, semifinals — 7:32 p.m. CT Wednesday
110-meter hurdles, finals — 8:12 p.m. CT Friday