SEC champion Masai Russell: “Track is my life”

Published 2:59 pm Friday, March 3, 2023


Contributing columnist

She grew up in a family with three brothers, so Masai Russell often played basketball and football with them even though the first sport she tried was gymnastics.

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“I have always been really athletic. I did the gymnastic and ballet stuff that young girls do,” said the University of Kentucky graduate student. “Then my mom took one of my brothers to a track meet. I saw what he was doing and wanted to try to. I was still doing gymnastics but there was something about track that I could not stay away from.

“I was 8 or 9 years old when I started running track. It’s the only sport I have done competitively my whole life. Actually, track is my life.”

It has turned into a really good life.

She broke the collegiate record for the 60-meter indoor hurdles Jan. 20 in Lubbock, Texas, with a time of 7.75 seconds (the previous mark was 7.78). The UK record was 7.87 by Keni Harrison, an eventual Olympic medalist, in 2015 when she won the NCAA championship.

Russell, already an 11-time All-American, is on the watch list for The Bowerman, the top award in track and field. Kentucky has had three other finalists — Harrison (2015), Olympic champion Sydney McLaughlin (2018) and 2022 winner Abby Steiner.

At last weekend’s SEC Indoor Championships at Arkansas, Russell won the 60-meter hurdles in 7.77 seconds — only .02 off the collegiate mark she set last month in Lubbock. Russell’s victory marked the fifth time in the last six years a Wildcat won gold in the SEC 60 hurdles but was her first SEC title.

Russell has always been fast. She can remember elementary school field day where she would “always beat everybody” in races and has always been in the top three in age division competitions.

“I have always been relevant but I was never the best at what I do until now. I was working hard before but still was not doing enough. Now all that hard work has come together this year,” she said.

She was an eight-time national champion in high school and two-time national record holder. Russell was a bronze medalist at the 2018 Pan American Junior Games in the 400 hurdles and the 2018 Gatorade Athlete of the Year in Maryland.

Yet it was not a simple journey that got her to Kentucky. She calls her recruiting story “pretty insane” but could not be happier with the way it ended.

She had verbally committed to Texas A&M before signing with Tennessee. Kentucky was never in her top five schools and she never visited  UK. Her scholarship offer to Texas A&M got pulled one day before the national signing period opened and she signed with Tennessee because of assistant coach Tim Hall.

“I was always told I should get a family vibe about a school but I never got that. The closest was Texas A&M and then my offer got pulled,” Russell said. “I did not have any real interest in Tennessee. It wasn’t what I wanted in a school but I wanted to have coach Hall teaching me.”

However, a few weeks before she was scheduled to go to Tennessee, Hall stopped responding to her messages and then she saw a post on Twitter about Hall going to coach at Kentucky.

“I wondered if he was going to bring me with him. Then he contacted my parents. I got offered the same money, same scholarship at Kentucky if I would come. I was just going on faith when I signed with Kentucky and it ended up being the best of any school I looked at,” Russell said. “Literally my dream came true.

“I had run at Kentucky in a high school invitational my junior and senior years. I looked up the dorms on YouTube. It ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Russell knew Kentucky had produced incredible hurdlers like Harrison and McLaughlin under previous coaches but head coach Lonnie Greene arrived from Purdue along with Hall and Harris at the same time.

“I knew both coaches had always had a lot of success but I was coming to a new team. I just embraced what they told me. I had a successful freshman year and made nationals. Since then my career has just progressed every year,” Russell, the silver medalist in the 60 hurdles at the 2022 NCAA Indoor Championships,  said.

Russell and Steiner arrived at UK together and were roommates who still remain “great friends” even with Steiner now pursuing a professional career.

“To see the progression Abby has had is inspiriing,” Russell said. “I know my time has come. As hard as Abby worked, I work just as hard. Ask our coaches who have been the hardest workers and they will see Masai and Abby. I am not comparing myself to her. Your work does not always show up when you think and clearly I am a year later than her. But you just have to trust your path.

“I just want to stay true to myself and be me. We have a lot of season left and  if I get caught up in the now I will get left in the past. You have to create success every single day. In track, it does not matter what you did yesterday. You have to continue proving what you can do. That’s what made Abby so great and relentless because she kept showing what she could do. I want to do that, too.”

Russell is a social media superstar with 192,000 followers one Instagram along with 480,000 followers on TikTok. Her YouTube channel has 29,000 subscribers.

“None of that was ever really planned,” Russell said. “I think it was just meant to be. I love what I do on and off the track.”

She has a wide variety of sponsored posts on Instagram and TikTok as she may have benefited more from name, image and likeness changes than any athlete at Kentucky.

“I pick up followers each day. I don’t spend a crazy amount of time on it,” she said. “I just post what I want. Doing NIL work does require me to work a lot from home and even at meets. Probably 50 to 60 percent of the day I am on my phone and the rest of the day I am trying to get better in the weight room or on the track.”