How American sprinter impaled by javelin came back to make the Olympics

·11-min read

Before he fought back from being impaled by a javelin to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, Elija Godwin admits he wasn’t an obedient patient.

He’d wait until his mom left for work and the house was empty. Then he’d slip out of bed, lace up his running shoes and push his battered body to its breaking point.

While warming up for practice a little over two years ago, Godwin did not see a javelin sticking out of the ground at an angle and backpedaled into it at high speed. The javelin went through the promising University of Georgia sprinter’s back below his left shoulder blade, punctured and collapsed his left lung and missed his heart by millimeters.

After coming home from the hospital a week after undergoing emergency surgery, Godwin soon defied his doctor’s instructions to rest awhile and only slowly increase his daily activity. Before long, he was sneaking out for runs in his suburban Atlanta neighborhood in hopes of hastening his return to the track.

“Boy, you’ve got holes in your body! You need to heal!” Godwin’s mother would scold him if she caught him leaving the house. Ginger Luby’s headstrong son seldom listened. To an athlete with Godwin’s relentless work ethic, weeks of inactivity wasn’t an option.

“Anytime I had the house to myself, I’d go out and jog for as long as I could,” Godwin told Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t make it down the block before I had to start walking the first time, but I knew it was a process. I was confident that if I kept doing it, it was going to pay off.”

A comeback that began two years ago on the tree-lined streets of Covington, Ga., will culminate this week in Tokyo. On June 20, Godwin clinched his first Olympics appearance days before his 22nd birthday when he finished sixth in the 400 meters finals at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.

Godwin’s time of 44.94 seconds was two-tenths of a second shy of what he needed to crack the top three at Trials and claim a spot in the open 400 at the Olympics. He is instead a candidate for the U.S. men’s 4x400-meter relay and was part of the mixed 4x400-meter relay, which won bronze.

How did a guy who couldn’t climb a flight of stairs or jog around his block two summers ago get back to circling a track in less than 45 seconds?

“That’s been my mission,” Godwin explained matter-of-factly. “I wanted to prove that this wasn’t the end of my story.”

USA's Elija Godwin prepares to compete in  the mixed 4x400m relay heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 30, 2021. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)
USA's Elija Godwin prepares to compete in the mixed 4x400m relay heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 30, 2021. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)

Stumbling onto track success

To trace Godwin’s path to Tokyo, it’s important to start before he began dreaming of running in the Olympics. Well into high school, Godwin was certain his speed was best suited for football.

Godwin began playing football at age 5 and developed into a physical, run-stopping safety. He only began dabbling in track in middle school as a means of staying in shape during football’s offseason.

Godwin began taking track more seriously as a high school sophomore after he transferred to a new school that had another talented sprinter. The team needed a 400 meters specialist. Much to Godwin’s surprise, he proved to be a natural.

“The first 400 I ran, I ran like 47.4,” Godwin said. “Somebody came up to me afterward and told me, ‘I think that’s the fastest time in Georgia this year.’ ”

The evidence soon accumulated that Godwin’s future lay in track. He lowered his personal-best time in the 400 by 1.5 seconds over the course of his sophomore season. Scholarship offers from prominent Southeastern Conference programs piled up, as did invitations to participate in prestigious meets across the country.

As Godwin blossomed as a sprinter, he also felt overlooked as a football prospect. Never did he appear in any national recruiting rankings. The coaches who offered football scholarships hailed from places like Ball State, Central Michigan, the Citadel and Virginia, not Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU.

In November of his senior year of high school, Godwin made a practical decision: He accepted a track scholarship from home-state Georgia. While Godwin didn’t rule out eventually trying to walk onto the Georgia football team, for the first time in his life, track was his focus.

“Something I loved about track was you didn’t have to deal with the politics that you did with football,” Godwin said. “In track, it’s all about time. I can prove that I’m top five in the nation or No. 1 in the nation. Can’t nobody tell me what I can and can’t do. That was very intriguing to me. I knew that I would get what I put in.

“In football, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best player in the world. If somebody from 247Sports doesn't think you’re the best player in the world, you’re not.”

Any lingering regrets that Godwin had about not playing college football melted away in April 2019. He twice finished the 400 in under 46 seconds, solidifying himself as one of the nation’s top freshman quarter-milers.

On May 7, 2019, Godwin arrived at practice confident he could run even faster and vie for a conference title at the upcoming weekend’s SEC Championships. That afternoon, he left campus in the back of a speeding ambulance with the rear part of a javelin lodged in his back.

The accident

The accident happened after Godwin and his fellow sprinters began a backwards running drill.

As he backpedaled across the grass, Godwin felt a “little punch” in the back, lost his balance and fell to the ground.

Godwin didn’t realize it was anything serious until he glanced over his shoulder and noticed the javelin protruding from his back and blood seeping from the wound. His concern turned to panic moments later when he started to spit up blood.

“I watch a lot of movies and I know what blood coming out of your mouth leads to,” Godwin said. “I was like, ‘Oh this is that bad? Now it’s time to pray.’ ”

Georgia medical personnel made no effort to remove the javelin from Godwin’s back while he lay on the grass because his blood loss was already so severe. All they could do was try to keep him stable and alert until an EMT crew arrived and sawed off part of the javelin to get him into the ambulance.

“Is this going to kill me?” Godwin remembers asking Georgia athletic trainer Stacey Kisil.

When Kisil tried to assure Godwin he’d be fine, the freshman knew better. “Stacey, you can be honest with me,” he said. “How bad is it?”

Godwin underwent emergency surgery at an Athens hospital that day to pry the remainder of the javelin from his back and repair his punctured lung. A surgeon also removed the damaged part of Godwin’s lung and installed a chest tube to reduce the pressure on the affected lung to allow it to re-expand.

Doctors told Godwin’s mother afterward that the javelin had barely missed her son’s heart and nearly pierced through his chest. Ginger Luby credits the power of prayer for Godwin’s narrow escape.

“It was very, very, very close to being so much worse,” she said.

The peculiarity of Godwin’s accident attracted media coverage across Georgia and beyond. TV cameras camped outside Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center and reporters visited with Godwin and his family throughout his week-long hospital stay.

Although his doctors initially weren’t certain he’d ever regain the lung capacity to run at an elite level again, Godwin had no doubt. Before he left the hospital, he resolved to return to the track as quickly as possible.

“I didn’t know how big of a comeback I would make,” he said, “but a comeback was what my focus was.”

USA's Elija Godwin (L) and Lynna Irby compete in the mixed 4x400m relay heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 30, 2021. (Photo by Javier SORIANO / AFP) (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images)
USA's Elija Godwin (L) and Lynna Irby compete in the mixed 4x400m relay heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 30, 2021. (JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images)

The comeback

The first hint that Godwin’s comeback story might have a Hollywood ending arrived in his final race before the pandemic halted college sports.

He delivered a performance reminiscent of his pre-injury form just as self doubt had begun to wash over him.

By February 2020, Godwin was no longer feeling winded after climbing a flight of stairs at the mall or lugging a heavy suitcase. He had long since completed physical therapy, returned to campus and received clearance to run for Georgia again.

Others may have viewed that alone as a success story, but that’s not the way Godwin is wired. He dialed his mom in frustration frequently during the indoor season because his fastest times weren’t up to the standard he set in previous years.

The breakthrough arrived with Godwin down to his last chance to qualify to run the 400 meters at NCAA Indoor Nationals. His time of 45.96 seconds was the seventh-fastest run by a college sprinter in 2020 and a massive leap forward for him after the accident.

“I didn’t know that would be the last time I’d race that season because of COVID,” Godwin said, “but I ended with confidence that I was all the way back. Having that confidence in myself from that race, I had the right mindset going into this year.”

Let Godwin’s dazzling 2021 season serve as a reminder that belief is a powerful medicine. He used his final pre-pandemic race of 2020 as a springboard back to national relevance.

In April, in his first outdoor race since his accident, Godwin won in an easy 45.34 seconds, one hundredth of a second off Georgia’s school record. A month later, he smashed his personal-best time to claim third place at the SEC Championships in a sizzling 44.61 seconds.

While not making the 400 meters final at the NCAA championships was a bitter disappointment, Godwin redeemed himself less than two weeks later at U.S. Olympic Trials. Running like he had something to prove, Godwin unleashed the second-fastest time of the first round and followed that by placing second in his semifinal heat.

Placing sixth in the final should have been Godwin’s crowning achievement at age 21, but the way it happened left him sour. Though he and pre-race favorites Michael Norman and Michael Cherry separated themselves coming out of the final turn, Godwin could not hold all-important third place and faded to sixth in the final 50 meters.

“For a split second, I thought I might have third in the bag, but the race wasn’t over yet,” Godwin said. “The second I let up just a little, they took advantage. I tried to reaccelerate, which doesn’t work that late in a 400. I broke form and dropped from third to sixth.”

Luby couldn’t help but chuckle when she spotted her son leaning dejectedly against a pole by himself minutes after the race. Here was a college kid two years removed from being impaled by a javelin sulking after making the U.S. Olympic team.

When they spoke a few minutes later, Godwin had not yet cooled down.

“Elija, what are you upset about?” his mom said. “The goal was to get to the Olympics, and you did!”

“No, the goal was to run the open 400,” Godwin responded. “I feel like a second-string quarterback right now — just on the team.”

Of course, Luby was having none of it. She reminded Godwin that he was in a hospital bed 25 months earlier, that he struggled to jog a full block after being discharged, that many weren’t certain he’d ever run at an elite level again.

“Do you know how many people who beat you coming up would love to make the Olympics?” Luby said. “This is a blessing. So oh no, we’re celebrating this.”

As more time passed, Godwin came to see it the same way. He now says “there’s no better feeling” than making the Olympics and having a chance to compete for a medal, even if that’s in a relay.

“After the incident, I thought a lot about what kind of story is this going to be?” Godwin said.

It’s not just a story about a sprinter impaled by a javelin anymore. It’s now the tale of his comeback.

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