Brycen Spratling sports Nike shoes, sweatpants and a short-sleeve black-and-blue shirt while warming up for his workout. He slowly trots around the track, bouncing to the beat of the music in his earbuds. An unknowing observer might assume he’s just there for a routine jog.
But once he takes off, a shift occurs. Spratling transforms into one of the world’s fastest men, still training alongside the team and coaches who gave him a chance when no one else would.
Spratling was one of Pitt’s most decorated athletes from 2011 to 2014, breaking multiple school records on his way to becoming a 10-time All-American. After graduation, he and Pitt head coach Alonzo Webb agreed he has the speed to succeed at the professional level — and Spratling decided to keep training under Webb while pursuing his dream of becoming a professional runner.
“I just ended up sticking around and still coached by Coach Webb, still doing the same workouts I’m familiar with,” Spratling, 25, said. “I feel like he got me to the point to where I’m at now, so [I] might as well not change anything.”
Less than a year after graduating from Pitt, he broke the world record in the 500-meter dash in February 2015. Then, he was part of the team that set a world record in the Distance Medley Relay with a time of 9:15.50 less than two weeks later in March 2015.
But Spratling’s journey to greatness was long and complicated. In fact, it almost didn’t happen at all.
Growing up in Monroe, New York, a suburb of Rochester, Spratling focused on traditional team sports. He played football and basketball for Webster Schroeder High School in New York, as well as AAU basketball — the highest level of travel-team ball — in the spring.
But the AAU’s age restrictions — which, according to Spratling, stated no one over the age of 17 could play — prevented him from competing as a senior. With no basketball, an 18-year-old Spratling with no track experience switched from sneakers to spikes. He had always been one of the faster kids on his football and basketball teams, so he thought it would be a good fit.
The sport was difficult for him at first. His times weren’t as good as he would’ve liked, and he discovered success wouldn’t come easily. But as the season went along and Spratling saw his times drop, the intrigue of seeing how fast he could run got him hooked.
By the end of the year, Spratling was the sectional, county and state champion in the 400-meter dash — but he only had one college scholarship offer, from Eastern Michigan University of the Mid-American Conference.
With no other options, he joined the Eagles and became a two-time MAC champion in the 400-meter dash as a true freshman. Despite the success, he didn’t think Eastern Michigan fit him athletically or academically, and decided to transfer after his first year. This time, the process was completely different — Spratling said he could’ve went anywhere he wanted.
But even with all the opportunities, Spratling had yet to hear from Webb and the Panthers, most likely because of his late start in the sport, Webb said.
At first, Spratling planned to transfer to Penn State, but Eastern Michigan blocked his release to the Nittany Lions along with a few other programs. With Penn State out of the question, he chose to look at other schools in the area — he wanted to be somewhat close to home — and his coaches recommended he take a look at Pitt.
With no offer from the Panthers, Spratling decided to call Webb himself. After seeing Spratling’s accomplishments at Eastern Michigan, Webb said he would be happy to have him join the team.
He and Webb immediately built a strong relationship when Spratling started in the 2011-12 indoor track season. Part of the reason the two got along so well was Webb’s willingness to coach his athletes both on and off the track. For example, when Spratling was moving into his new apartment in Oakland, Webb was there to help him in the process.
Spratling made his presence felt right away, winning the 500-meter Big East title in his first year and setting an NCAA record with a time of 1:00.63. It didn’t take long for Webb to realize how lucky he was to bring on an athlete of Spratling’s caliber.
“I don’t know how good our program would’ve been in the time that he would’ve been here if he wasn’t,” Webb said. “We would have still been good, but I think he made us a great program during the three years he was here.”
Spratling’s favorite experience wouldn’t come until his last semester at Pitt, when he and his teammates won the 4×400 meter relay at the 2014 Penn Relays — the first time the Panthers had won the race in 75 years.
After graduating from Pitt, he continued to impress. As a professional runner, Spratling has traveled to places like the Bahamas, Canada and Belgium to compete on the international stage.
First, Spratling broke a 28-year-old world record in the 500-meters with a time of 1:00.06 at the 2015 Millrose Games.
Less than two weeks later, Spratling broke another world record — this time as a member of the U.S. Distance Medley Relay team — at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Relays meet in the Bahamas.
“That’s very rare to have somebody who’s going to break a world record in anything,” Webb said. “When you think about it, how many people are in this world, and you’re the best, that’s impressive.”
After reaching the pinnacle of collegiate sprinting, Spratling now sets his sights on professional and international competitions. He’s competed with the U.S. national team several times, barely missing the cut for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.
Interacting with the current Pitt team, he serves as a guide and inspiration for the younger athletes, including star senior sprinter Desmond Palmer. Palmer, who recently broke Spratling’s 600-meter school record in his first time trying the event, said Spratling has been a big influence on the team.
“He’s someone that pushes us in practice. He tells us about the ins and outs of track and how to perform well at really big meets,” Palmer said. “He’s both a mentor and competitor for us and he’s someone that we all look up to.”
Current first-year Panther sprinter Jabari Michael-Khensu watched Spratling break the 500m world record from his Maryland home while he was still in high school.
When Michael-Khensu visited Pitt shortly after, he was shocked to realize Spratling still trained with the team.
“It was exciting my first time meeting him,” Michael-Khensu said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the 500m world record holder,’ but now he’s kind of just a regular old guy that we train with.”
When Michael-Khensu finished right behind Spratling in one of his first time trials, the veteran runner texted him afterwards to talk about the young athlete’s mindset.
“[He] was like, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing, don’t let any of the negative things people say about you get to you. You’re on the right track, look at what you did at practice today,’” Michael-Khensu said.
Throughout his time at Pitt, Spratling only had one major regret — letting the success get to his head early on. He said he if he had tried harder in the beginning of his career, he might’ve achieved even more.
“On the track, I wished I would have taken it more serious early,” Spratling said. “I wish I would have tried a lot harder and do a lot of the little things that I skipped out on because success came so quick, and I just got comfortable with what I was doing.”
Looking forward, he says he still has a lot to prove and is ready to avenge his Olympic shortcoming in 2020.
“I’ll definitely be back,” Spratling said. “I’m going to amp up my training a little bit and just try to get better every day.”