The average freshman is expected to listen, to learn, to not make a splash. But Nolan Hay and Hayden McClain are not average. A little more than halfway into their first season as Oklahoma track and field athletes, both have already beaten any challenges they faced.
The jumpers had a similar path to the University of Oklahoma. They both started track in their sophomore years of high school. Both played other sports before dedicating solely to track and field, but that is where the similarities end.
Although Hay finished high school as a state champion in the long jump, he came to OU as a walk-on. His skills in the long jump earned him his spot on the team.
His college career began with a bang. In his first outing at the Sooner Opener, he placed first in the long jump (23-6). Hay went on to the Big 12 Indoor Championships where he finished fourth in long jump, barely missing the goal he set for himself.
“Since I was a walk-on, I just wanted to travel,” said Hay. “Once I figured out I was getting pretty good, I wanted to hit the 25-foot mark, but I fell a little short.”
Meanwhile, McClain was sidelined during the indoor season by injury. During a workout, he injured his hip flexor and spent two months recovering from the injury. In the eyes of head coach Jim VanHootegem, the injury aided McClain’s progress.
“The injury limited him in training, but I think it gave him an opportunity to sit and watch,” explained VanHootegem. “Sometimes you learn more that way. When you’re watching other people go, you’re not bringing in your own personal bias toward what you’re watching.
“It might have set him back from a physical point of view. From a mental point of view, I think he was able to go forward because he was able to observe more.”
In his first triple jump competition after his injury, McClain set a career-best mark of 50-5.25, placing ranking ninth all-time in program history. He closed out the indoor portion of the season with a second-place finish in the triple jump at Big 12 Indoor Championships.
Though their progress is atypical, the rest of their transition fits the norm. With difficult majors -- Hay in petroleum engineering and McClain in aviation, -- both are learning how to balance their demanding schedules.
“It’s a big time commitment, but it teaches us time management,” said Hay.
McClain credits the help in the academic center with keeping them in line and providing a place to study.
Their coach has helped ease them into college athletics. VanHootegem says he is tough on freshmen in the beginning, and then reminds them that college athletics is a process. The two jumpers find they benefit from VanHootegem’s no-holds-barred approach.
“He’s really straightforward with us,” explained McClain.
“Which is good,” added Hay. “I don’t want to be lied to.”
In a normal situation, VanHootegem’s expectations for the freshmen would be to simply listen and take direction from upperclassmen. But since it is VanHootegem’s first year as the Sooner coach, the standards are the same for all. Instead of having upperclassmen he knows are role models, the first-year OU head coach put all of his athletes on an even playing field, hoping they all would adapt to his standard of excellence.
“Where it is different for freshmen is that I expect the freshmen to do a little more listening,” stated VanHootegem. “Once we’ve earned each other’s trust, particularly once they’ve earned my trust, I actually want to hear more from them.
“At first, it’s just pure learning, but eventually it becomes more collaborative.”
In the future, Hay and McClain will be expected to be leaders for their younger teammates. And both hope to be showing and telling their teammates how to be successful. Their goals are lofty – both hope to earn All-America honors before they graduate. When that is accomplished, they will know the process that VanHootegem taught them, as freshmen, was one that led to success.
By Laila Wani, student intern, OU Athletics Communications