Stephon Pamilton is an American sprinter specializing in the 400m dash and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign alumni. He was born and raised in the urban areas of Jacksonville, FL with his mother, Ernell Townsend, and younger brother until his late teens. He became a young father during high school, having his first child at the age of 17, and his last at age 21 with a total of 4 children. Throughout his life, his small family has always been a drive behind his endeavors, whether succeeding academically or athletically. Stephon’s personal honors and awards include 3x Bethune-Cookman University MVP, 4x NCAA All-Region, 4x NCAA All American, 6x All-Conference, and 4x Big Ten 400m Champion.
What’s your story?
Well, I am Stephon Pamilton, your normal young man from the hood looking for better. I grew up in what some would consider the ghetto or inner city learning more about how a man should be from watching tv and listening to Tupac than from watching any man be around. I’ve spent most of my life trying to be like the only men I knew, watching Will Smith on TV, imitating Tupac to be someone others could look up to. For a long time, all that I knew a black man to be, was unwavering in their ideals, and a man others could lean on when things were tough. The strength of a black man, was to be the strength that everyone else wish they had. I became that for my mother, and overtime became the same for others in the neighborhood. I focused on being the best I could be, or to be completely honest, the best that anyone would ever want to be, better than just best. I tried hard in school and in sports, I wanted everyone to feel like if they ever needed a friend I was there and most of all I tried hard to keep my family’s hopes up.
I began running track on a complete whim when my step dad (at the time) Anthony Upson was working at a summer club for at risk teens. I was 10 years old at the time but my goal was to gain the respect of the older kids. On that one day, as a ten year old in gym shorts and Jordans I ran my very first 400, with no instructions other than “stay in your lane the whole time and when you hear the gun go off run as fast as you can for as long as you can.” I can say two things about that moment; the first, track became much more than just running in my life. The second, I would never use that strategy in the 400 again. From that point track lead me to meet many people and travel to different areas of the city then the state helping me learn and grow. I made friends closer than family, met family I didn’t even know and even began to find ways to get around my father. Although he has never seen me run, I knew at least track was something I could show him one day.
Once I began my 8th grade year track became serious. The summer before, my grandfather had passed before he could come out and see me run, and that year I made sure to run every race as if he was waiting at the finish line. I won state, being .02 off the state record, broke the school record and was off to high school. During high school I began running well, running 50 seconds in the 400 as a freshman until we moved into a new neighborhood. At the time I had no idea but this was the beginning of my identity crisis. My biological father stayed literally two blocks away from me and still my relationship with him didn’t exist. I spent years trying to convince him to come see me run, play football, soccer or anything but it never worked. While I tried to get him to support me, I fell short in supporting my own family, allowing my younger brother who was 5 years younger than me find idols in the neighborhood thugs or soon to be thugs. Tied up between track and trying to be acknowledged, I found myself becoming a 17 year old high school father of a beautiful baby girl. At this point, track became more than just a way to meet and inspire others. It became a means to provide for my new family.
After graduating high school to stay close to home I attended Bethune-Cookman University for two years growing and trying to focus on becoming a great athlete. Unfortunately, this focus was broken quickly when my brother called me one night crying after shooting another neighborhood kid that was threatening his life. I knew this kid was trouble before, but I didn’t act fast enough to keep my brother from around them. This was probably the hardest moment of my life. Having a judge, sentence my 14 year old little brother to 40 years in prison, and knowing that I couldn’t do anything to help him. My performance fell, I lost myself, and I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I tried religion, I tried talking to family, I tried to just be strong. Nothing seemed to work. I then transferred from Bethune Cookman to the University of Illinois to refocus on my children and track, leading me to half second drops in my PB times each year, and 4 consecutive Conference titles.
So the thing about having a dream is that it doesn’t die until it’s a reality. I graduated from University of Illinois being undefeated at conference in the 400m dash, having numerous medals and all eyes on “what’s next?” I went back home to Jacksonville to spend time with my family and kids, while working for the local soccer team in the marketing department. As much as I loved putting my degree to use, track is a passion that I can’t watch from a distance. I began training with my high school coach to stay in some decent shape and while I was there I spent time with the William M. Raines High School track team to prove to them that being from “the hood” doesn’t mean you won’t be successful. We all trained together, built a bond and an environment to use as an escape from the violence and negativity the world can bring. While growing mentally there, I continued to search for places to grow physically and professionally, until the day Coach Andreas gave me the call asking if I was still interested in training in Phoenix. I didn’t think before saying yes, but I’m beyond grateful that the opportunity arose to come to this training group. I would like to personally thank some family and a friend for the support I’ve gotten to make it this far, but just saying thank you wouldn’t be enough. So for this upcoming year, and the rest of my track career, I’ll be doing this for everyone that believes in me and the dream I’ve always held of being an Olympian.
What was your most monumental moment in Track and Field?
To be honest I don’t believe I’ve had that moment yet. Of course I’ve overcome some hardships and won a few medals but none of those moments compares to the dreams of the future. For now, I would say the biggest moment for me has been graduating from the University of Illinois. I’ve lost so many friends, associates, neighbors, family members and even relationships while chasing this dream and I believe that graduation was one point that I felt like all of my hard work had helped me accomplish something most people could only dream about. With that being said, I’m waiting for the day it helps me accomplish what I dream about.
What is your mindset going into the Olympic year?
My mindset this year is actually quite simple. Just go out and be great. Not great in the sense that everyone looks to you and expects you to be #1 in the world, but great as in do all you can to be all you can. Improve every day, little by little until you can no longer be better.
How is your training going so far?
Training is amazing. It’s a different program for sure but every moment is a learning opportunity to guide you to your goal. I’ve had a few injuries and some trouble getting my muscles to adjust but I’m faster than I’ve ever been before. The training atmosphere is great, and everyone here has a true desire to be better. Even the coaches strive daily to be better and that’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this. As long as I stay healthy, I’m sure I’ll accomplish a lot.
Advice to Young Athletes
I have two pieces of advice I think are important. First, don’t be afraid to commit to your dreams. Nothing worth dreaming about will be made a reality without work and true commitment. You may feel alone, or like you’re turning your back on the people around you, but you can’t help anyone if you aren’t set yourself. The second, always keep in mind why you started doing what you do. Love whatever you feel in your heart is your thing. If you truly love what you do, no one will be able to copy or mimic the way you do it, and nothing will stop you from being better every time you do it.
Consistency is key to working out. We’ve all been in the position where we start and go strong for a few days then fall off two days then try to come back and let life just get in the way. It’s tough I know, but really set aside time and do not compromise that time for anything. Also remember that getting fit will not happen overnight, and being fit doesn’t just happen and that’s it. It will take some work to get fit, and then some work to stay fit… I’m sorry but I promise it’s worth it.
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