The men putting down their money didn’t think the 7-year-old kid in slip-on Vans stood a chance.
Tommy Gillespie knew better. His son, Cravon, might have been small, but he was faster than anyone else in the neighborhood.
Cravon was known to run against kids two or three times his age and leave them in the dust. When another father brought his son and challenged Cravon to a race behind the barbershop, the Gillespies eagerly accepted.
Men lined up and started putting down their bets. According to Tommy, the pot grew to $700 or $800 before stories of Cravon’s speed began to circulate, prompting a few of the men to pull out their money.
Cravon won, of course, and the Gillespies went home that night with some extra spending cash.
“I knew he was real, real fast,” Tommy said. “I just wanted to see him on this stage.”
Instead of running street races behind a barbershop in his hometown of Pasadena, Calif., Cravon is now racing for national titles at the NCAA Track & Field Championships in Austin, Texas. He’ll represent Oregon in the finals of both the 100 and 200 meters Friday and run a leg of the 4x100 relay.
Gillespie ran 9.97 at the Pac-12 meet to become the first Oregon sprinter to break the 10-second barrier in the 100. Friday, he’ll attempt to become the second Duck to win an NCAA title in that event, joining Harry Jerome from 1964.
“I think I’m on a good path,” Gillespie said. “It’s always been a dream of mine. I’ve been wanting to run here for a while.”
For Oregon track fans, Gillespie’s season might go down as the best they never saw. He broke school records in the 100 and 200 without the help of any Hayward Field magic, running all of his races away from home because of the ongoing rebuild of Oregon’s stadium.
There’s been no lack of appreciation among those who follow the sport. That includes coach Robert Johnson, who finally can add a sub-10 sprinter to the list of the Ducks’ track and field milestones.
“There’s only a few places in the United States that can say they have a sub-10-second guy that’s ever graced their campuses,” Johnson said. “We’re fortunate to have one of them.”
Gillespie’s older brother was one of the few people who could beat him in a race, but that ended around the time Cravon turned 5. When he wasn’t riding his scooter to run hills near the family’s home, he was joining his dad on 15-mile runs or playing basketball at night with men from his neighborhood. He had his own pair of starting blocks and lugged them to the track every day for workouts.
“He was always that special kid,” Tommy said.
Tommy ran a dump truck business that helped put Cravon and his brother through private school. They found a guidance counselor to help Cravon stay on track academically, and he graduated from high school thinking he’d met the requirements to enroll at a Division I school.
Later, he discovered he was a half-credit short.
“It was definitely heartbreaking,” Gillespie said. “I was trying to do anything I could, from summer school to different things like that to get into any school. When I couldn’t, it was definitely hard.”
Gillespie enrolled at Mt. San Antonio College, a two-year school with a strong tradition in track and field. When the Ducks competed at the Mt. SAC relays, Gillespie tracked down sprints coach Curtis Taylor and let him know he still wanted to run at Oregon.
“I knew the times I was running, and I knew I could run with these guys in Division I,” Gillespie said. “When I finally got that chance, I wanted to make the most of it.”
Gillespie arrived at Oregon last January without the benefit of a full fall training regimen. He battled nagging injuries in the spring but finished fourth in the 100 at the NCAA meet, leaving him optimistic about what he could accomplish with a full year of training.
“Once I got the fall training to get that base, get my legs under me, I felt like I was going to be able to do a lot of good things,” Gillespie said.
After a stellar outdoor season, Gillespie has a chance to top off his collegiate career with an NCAA title. Competition in the 100-meter final will be stiff, with three runners — Divine Oduduru of Texas Tech, Hakim Sani Brown of Florida and Mario Burke of Houston — going sub-10 seconds in the prelims.
Thinking back to those races behind the barbershop, Tommy Gillespie can’t recall a time when Cravon was intimidated by his competition.
“You always recognize in the starting blocks who’s afraid and who ain’t,” Tommy said. “He always felt like he had the edge because he knew from Day One this is what he was sent here for, is to run.
“He just needs to show the world.”