Long Beach State’s Raleigh Adams’ unlikely journey leads him to NCAA finals

Four Long Beach State athletes have traveled to Austin this week for the NCAA Track & Field Championships, but one of them has traveled much further than that. Redshirt junior Raleigh Adams has barely run during his four-year career at the school due to multiple injuries. Still, a confluence of opportunity and inspired performances have put him in the school record books and hoping for a big week in Texas.

It might be seen as a surprise that an athlete who has missed over two full seasons with injuries would currently hold a national top 10 time in the 110 hurdles, but LBSU coaches don’t see it that way.

“It’s not shocking, it’s just that it’s about time,” said associate head coach LaTanya Sheffield. “What’s happening for Raleigh right now is absolutely fate.”

Unfulfilled Promise

Adams grew up in Northern California, the son of a hurdles coach. As a kid, Adams gravitated to the sport but showed no interest in entering the family business of hurdling for his first several years, preferring to sprint without the jumping. Then, as a fifth grader, all that changed.

“We were working out and my dad had a hurdler on his team who was really good, he was a senior and I was in fifth grade,” remembered Adams. “I was talking trash to him and he told me I couldn’t hurdle, ever since that day I wanted to make sure to do it.”

It wasn’t easy. His father brought home hurdles from school and worked him out in the backyard but Adams’ slight stature delayed his career. He wasn’t even five feet tall when he began high school and wasn’t allowed to hurdle for his high school team until his junior year when he finally reached 5-foot-7.

He showed enough promise in the event that Sheffield and Long Beach State head coach Andy Sythe brought him South on scholarship. What occurred over the next three years was one injury after another. First, his freshman year, he tore one hamstring. The next year, he tore the other hamstring. The year after, he had a hyperextension. The result was a supremely talented athlete who missed the entire 2017 season, then came back and set an indoor school record in 2018, and then missed the entire outdoor season in the spring.

“My mom and dad were like, ‘Maybe this isn’t for you,’” Adams said with a laugh. He said the tears in his hamstrings felt like being stabbed with a knife and the recovery from the injuries was just as painful. So was keeping up his fitness as he rehabbed.

“We’ve come a long way on this journey,” said Sheffield. “He was vomiting every day at the end of practice.”

For the 2019 season, Sheffield and Sythe made the decision to take the stress off. She took him out of the 110-meter hurdles altogether in favor of the 400-meter hurdles, a longer race but one with lower hurdles. Adams, a bright personality on the team, kept a good sense of humor. When Sheffield suggested a particularly difficult workout he’d joke that she was scaring his hamstrings. He managed to remain a leader on the team despite not competing much, running just three races before the start of the postseason.

“Raleigh is just one of those exceptional individuals,” said Sythe. “Friendly, happy, life is good, type of guy. His personality unites and excites people. But it was his personality, not his performances.”

Preparation Meets Opportunity

Adams said he had more or less made his peace with the end of his track and field career. Although it’s his redshirt junior season, he treated it like a senior campaign, preparing to graduate in the Fall and move on with his life.

“I wore my senior shirt, I did our senior presentation for the team,” he said.

Then a teammate broke his foot, leaving Long Beach State without a 110-meter hurdler going into the conference championships, where the team title would be decided by a few points. Adams told Sheffield he wanted to give it a go.

At first, she was hesitant; there was a reason she’d taken him out of the event. Adams isn’t even six feet tall and the 110-hurdles stand at three and a half feet. It’s hard for anyone to sprint while clearing them, much less someone who’s torn both hamstrings.

“His knee has to come all the way up to his chest, and that leaves the hamstring very vulnerable,” said Sheffield. “Mentally, it’s very difficult to know that you’re putting yourself in that position, and I had to know he could overcome that. But he made up his mind, he said, ‘I can do it,’ and I said, ‘OK, go do it.’”

Adams went out and ran a 14.16 in the Big West Conference prelims, advancing him to the Finals. In the championship race he ran a 13.83, the fastest time run by a Long Beach State athlete in more than two decades. His silver medal performance helped earn Long Beach a Big West team championship.

“We’re going, ‘Wow, that’s exceeded all expectations,’” said Sythe.

In the two weeks since Adams got faster competing at the NCAA Prelims in Sacramento. His time of 13.59 broke a 47-year-old school record and established him as the best LBSU athlete ever in the exact event that had tortured him throughout his career. It also punched his ticket to the NCAA Finals.

“You couldn’t write a story like that and have it be believable,” said Sythe. ““There isn’t a person on this team who isn’t on the Raleigh bandwagon right now.”

There are only four other athletes still competing who have run a faster time than Adams’ season best, and he has a very realistic shot to advance out of Wednesday evening’s prelims round to the championship race on Friday. The last month has changed everything for Adams who is now planning on delaying graduation, spreading his classes out over two semesters next year to allow him to compete in his redshirt senior season.

“I always wanted this as my college experience but it just took time,” Adams said. “Sometimes things don’t happen when we want them to, then there’s that one opportunity and boom, it all makes sense.”

Sheffield said that Adams has handled his entire journey with style and class, helping her coach and keeping the mood light while he was injured and pushing himself over the last month to mark his name in the school’s history books.

“He had some tough times and some tough days,” she said. “This is a Cinderella story. He was cleaning the floors, he had some wicked stepsisters in his head at times. But he’s made it to the ball!”

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Mike and JJ go together like mac and cheese: they’re best friends, business partners and Long Beach sports experts. They’ve been working together for over a decade covering Long Beach local sports and now run the562.org, a community-funded nonprofit media outlet.