Worsham: Inside the Most Decorated (And Competitive) Room on Campus
Digital Media Reporter
The annual January return of students to LSU for the spring semester has its telltale signs all over campus. Parking lots crowd. Traffic congests. Lines lengthen.
But for one unit in the Nicholson Gateway apartments, nothing much changes. It’s business as usual – compete, or don’t come home.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more competitive – or more accomplished – apartment on campus than the one shared by LSU track and field standouts Mondo Duplantis, JuVaughn Harrison, Jake Norris, and Damion Thomas.
There’s certainly none more decorated. All four are the owners of medals won at the IAAF World U20 Championships held last summer in Finland. Duplantis (pole vault), Norris (hammer throw), and Thomas (110 meter hurdles) all brought home golds, while Harrison (high jump) earned a bronze.
Duplantis, the most touted of the athletes as the world junior record holder and owner of the fourth-highest pole vault in world history at just 19 years old, is also the newcomer to the group. Harrison, Norris, and Thomas all lived together last year, but Duplantis – the younger brother of former Tiger pole-vaulter Andreas and current Tiger baseball standout Antoine – is used to living among accomplished athletes.
“Living with people who are so good at what they do makes you want to bring your game to the next level, to bring your game up to par with them – or be even better,” he says. “It’s a pretty competitive room, since everyone in the room has had some taste of success. Everybody wants more of it. You can’t get enough of it once you get a taste of it.”
Thomas and Norris each got a taste of that success as freshmen last year for the Tigers, each earning All-American honors before heading to Finland. Norris scored six points for LSU at the NCAA Outdoor Championships with a school record heave of 73.24 meters (240-03) in the hammer throw to earn a third place finish, while Thomas also placed third in the 110 meter hurdles, running a 13.45 to finish just three-hundredths of a second behind the title winner.
That finish – plus a U20 World Record 12.99 posted at the 2018 Jamaican Championships – made Thomas the favorite at the U20 Championships in the summer, and he followed through with a 13.16 effort in the final to claim gold for Jamaica.
“I went into Worlds ranked number one, but I didn’t let it get to my head,” Thomas says. “I knew, it’s a world stage. There’s going to be guys stepping up to the plate. I didn’t take anything for granted and just tried to get the job done.”
Norris, meanwhile, entered the competition as the British U-20 world record holder in the hammer toss and broke his own record by throwing 80.65 meters, the second-best throw in the world by a U20 athlete for the 2018 year and good enough for gold.
His final came shortly after Thomas won his gold, so he knew he’d need to live up to the standard – or else face a healthy dose of roasting back home.
“Beforehand, you’re focused on your competition, but anytime they were on, I made sure I watched it, whether it was on TV or at the track,” Norris says. “It was good seeing everyone doing really well. It’s moments like that where you’re like, ‘I need to get it together and do well.’”
Harrison’s podium finish was the pleasant surprise of the bunch. After picking up four wins as a freshman and finishing fourth at the SEC Championships with a 2.22 meter high jump – the fourth-highest jump in school history – Harrison placed 13th at the NCAAs with a 2.08 meter jump. That disappointment left him hungry for more in Finland.
The result: a 2.23 meter jump on his second attempt, a personal record good for bronze.
“Looking at the standings, I wasn’t supposed to place fourth or higher,” Harrison says. “I was supposed to place fifth or sixth, so being able to go out there, PR, and get third was a good experience. It was a confidence booster. At nationals, I didn’t perform as well as I wanted to, but at world juniors, I’ve seen I can perform at a big stage. Now, it’s up to me to do it again this year at LSU.”
He better. His roommates haven’t let him live down the fact that he’s the only one without gold in the apartment.
“Me, Mondo, and Jake are gold medalists,” Thomas jokes. “So we always like to hold it over JuVaughn’s head, because he placed third at World Juniors. He’s living amongst winners.”
Harrison’s retort is as short as it is true: “It just means I gotta work harder,” he says.
The trash talk may start with the medals, but it’s not exclusive to the sport track and field. Games of FIFA are known to get intense – Norris is the consensus best of the bunch – while arguments over who is the best chef or dresser among the crew are frequent and heated.
“It’s pretty heated with video games,” Thomas says. “A lot of FIFA, some NBA 2K and Madden. Any game it can be one vs. one, it’s competitive. There’s nothing that’s not competitive. We even talk trash about who cooks better.”
As much as their collective summer success serves as motivation, their natural competitive instincts keep things sharp in the apartment on a daily basis. There are no days off, because there’s nothing worse than coming home as the slacker in an apartment full of grinders.
“It doesn’t give us a lot of room to slack off,” Thomas says. “If I come home from a hard day of work, and I see JuVaughn’s practice was hard, and Jake’s talking about how he’s throwing so much weight, at the end of the day, we need to put pressure on each other. Not bad pressure, but good pressure, so we can keep pushing each other.”
That push could put LSU in a prime spot when SEC and National Championship events roll around. It’s hard not to do the math. If each athlete were to win his individual title, that would be 40 points toward the Tigers’ team total – a substantial contribution in the quest toward a team title.
“We’re young, but talented,” Thomas says. “Between the four of us in that apartment, I feel like there’s so much potential to go out there and score major points for the team.”
The differences between the four athletes are as obvious as their talent. Each represents a different country on the international stage: Thomas, Jamaica; Duplantis, Sweden; Norris, Great Britain; Harrison, the United States. Thomas is a hurdler; Norris a thrower; Harrison a jumper; Duplantis vaults. Thomas and Duplantis are quieter. Harrison’s a talker. Norris has a dry, cutting wit.
But they each share a bond few can relate to, because they’ve each accomplished what few have achieved, and they’ve each needed a similar dedication to reach their goals.
In a sport that prioritizes individual greatness, they push each other with a collective mindset.
Before they can be the best in the world, they must first become the best in the apartment.
“We all have similar goals when it comes to track and field,” Duplantis adds. “We all want to be in the Olympics. We all want to be medalists. We all want to be the best in the world in our events. I think it’s great that we have similar goals. If you’re in a dorm with a couple of less dedicated athletes, maybe the lights don’t go out until 3 a.m. If you want to go to bed at 10 p.m., there’s no problem in our dorm room, because people want good sleep, they want to train well.
“Everybody is on a mission.”