Steeplechase is an event known for its spectacular falls. Combine barriers, a water jump, and tightly packed runners going at high speeds, and you’ve got an environment ripe for catastrophe.
Still, even by the steeple’s high standards, what happened to Ky Robinson, a 19-year-old Stanford freshman, was ghastly.
It was early in the race at the Pac-12 championships at USC on May 15. Robinson’s trailing leg clipped a barrier, and down he went. He rolled. Straight into the path of a Washington runner.
Through no fault of his own, the Washington runner stepped on Robinson’s face with his spikes, dragging a path across Robinson’s left cheek. It could have been worse—the spikes didn’t puncture all the way through the cheek and more important, they missed his eye.
Robinson popped right up. “I didn’t realize how bad it was immediately,” he told Runner’s World. “I felt my face, my lip, I looked down and saw the blood.” He convinced himself that he had just cut his lip.
He managed to finish third in the race in a four-second personal best of 8:41.81. “The adrenaline rush took the pain away,” he said.
After the race ended, he went over to a teammate, D.J. Principe, who had been in a steeple for the first time. Principe just pushed Robinson over toward medical officials on the track.
One of them came to him with a towel, and Robinson, still unaware of how bad his wounds were, tried to brush off the help. The medic grabbed him by the arm and marched him off the track.
Another member of the medical staff on duty at the time happened to be a plastic surgeon. He gave Robinson 27 stitches to close the gashes, the deepest of which goes for several inches across his cheek.
One of the toughest parts of the night for Robinson was FaceTiming his parents in Brisbane, Australia, to let them know what happened. He wore a mask. “When I was talking to my mum, I was like, ‘I can show you,’ and she said, ‘Don’t you dare take that mask off, I don’t want to see.’”
Robinson, however, never missed a day of training. And he’s only gotten faster in the three weeks since the fall. He set another PR, 8:40.45, at the NCAA West Regional, qualifying for the NCAA Championships.
“I had a little PTSD going over the barriers,” he said. “I found I was stepping on a lot more barriers instead of straight hurdling.”
But by the time of his semifinal heat of the championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, Robinson had cast most of the doubts from his mind. He won his heat in 8:36.29, another four-second best. (He did run to the outside of lane 1, or in the inside of lane 2, to get a clear look at the barriers, adding distance to his race.)
On June 11, in the final, Robinson finished sixth in 8:32.01, another large personal best. He set a Stanford school record, and broke his own Australian and Oceanian U-20 records. He has cut 13 seconds off his PR since being sliced in the face.
The wounds are still visible—and could be for some time. He’s using a scar cream and it might take as long as a year for the marks to subside.
This much is clear, though: There’s nothing wrong with his legs.
Sarah Lorge Butler is a writer and editor living in Eugene, Oregon, and her stories about the sport, its trends, and fascinating individuals have appeared in Runner’s World since 2005.
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