Michael Walton doesn’t believe the nonsense many athletes spout about not being role models. And just accepting the role of role model isn’t enough.
“I love children,” said Walton, a sprinter from Clinton. “I want to give them a role model. Most children idolize athletes like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson. I hope they see me on TV and say that’s Coach Mike I know him.”
So while running track at Southern California in the late 1990s, Walton decided to work with children in a community near the university. Then, in January, he stepped up his involvement, starting his own community program in South Central Los Angeles. He drew aspiring runners and basketball players from ages 7 to 18 in the area, purchased uniforms with his own money and formed teams to compete in various leagues around the city.
He even did his own public relations work.
“I went to the area schools and spoke to the principals about my program,” he said. “The children had to maintain good grades to participate.”
Now Walton, 26, wants to start a similar program in Prince George’s County, especially in places like Temple Hills, Clinton and Suitland. Walton’s program promotes self-confidence and self-work.
“The [effect] is there because the kids are putting in the work to succeed on the track,” he said. “Some of the kids might not make it to the Olympics, but they are bonding together. I want them to know that things are attainable.”
There’s no better way to do that than to show them by example at the Olympics.
For the past two years, Walton, who graduated from Crossland High School in Temple Hills in 1992 and from Southern Cal six years later, has trained under the famed Al Joyner. Joyner, an assistant coach at UCLA who coached his wife, the late Florence Griffith Joyner, to world records in the 100 and 200 meters, watched Walton compete in the 200 and 400 for the Trojans and began guiding him in April 1999.
“My career has gone to a different level he is the best coach in the world,” said Walton, who calls Joyner his big brother. “I learned so much from Al in one year. How Al works and trains, pushes me to do the same.
Said Joyner: “There are many who dream of winning Olympic gold, but very few athletes embody all the qualities necessary to reach past the pain and sacrifice. Michael Walton is one of the fortunate few. His focus, dedication, and natural ability form the foundation on which great success is built.”
A shot at the Olympics isn’t out of the question. At Southern Cal, Walton was a two-time All-American in the 400 meters, with a personal best of 44.97 seconds. He also was All-Pac 10 in the 200 meters with a personal best 20.03. His proudest achievement there came in 1997, when he led the Trojans to their first Pac-10 championship in 20 years and took third place in the 400 at the NCAA championships.
But in all those years he really was never injury free. During his senior year at Crossland, he couldn’t compete in any individual events because of hamstring problems. And a week before the 1999 Olympic trials, he blew out his hamstring. Now, however, he says he’s 100 percent.
“The 2004 Olympics is looking real good,” Walton said. “I haven’t felt this great in my life. Since I have been home [to put together the program], I have continued to train.”
Walton didn’t always call this area home. He was born on Warner Robins (Ga.) Air Base. And while he was in high school, his father, George Walton, was a master sergeant at Yokota Air Force Base in Japan. Walton became the undisputed sprint champion in the Kanto Plains, which featured American high schools in Japan, for two consecutive years, attracting attention from college coaches in the United States. Then he attended Crossland his senior year.
“I was in Japan for five years, and it was different here,” Walton said. “It was definitely a culture shock when I first came to Crossland. The people in Japan were friendly, and after living on base my entire life it was hard living in a big city when I came here. In track, it was difficult because I was by far better than everybody in Japan because of my natural ability. I had to work extremely hard here because there were people who also had natural ability.”
Walton will make another trip abroad later this summer to compete at the Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia.
“As long as I reach my full potential, everything else will be taken care of,” Walton said. “I will be just fine.”
And that’s exactly what he preaches to the children in his program. When asked to prioritize winning Olympic gold and making a difference in a child’s life, his reply was certain.
“Touching a child’s life,” he said. “Touching just one child is worthwhile. I feel like I am making a difference already.”