Justyn Knight signs long-term deal with newly formed Reebok Boston Track Club
Justyn Knight could hardly contain his excitement upon returning to Syracuse University after a top-10 debut at the world track and field championships last August.
"I was like, 'Coach, would you ever want to work with me as a pro? That would be so cool, travelling overseas and going to London. That could be our life,'" says Knight, the Canadian distance runner who finished ninth in the men's 5,000 metres at London Stadium. "He said, 'I know you're really excited but don't forget you have three more seasons left in college [cross-country, indoors and outdoors in your senior year].
"Focus on that and we can always talk about the future."
Well, the future is now for Knight and Chris Fox, who will continue their athlete-coach relationship as members of Reebok Boston Track Club, a newly formed professional running group that will compete at elite competitions worldwide, starting later this year.
Knight, a three-time NCAA Division I champion, has signed a long-term contract as a foundational member of the team while Fox will lead the unit after building one of the top collegiate distance running programs over 14 years at Syracuse, where 67 of his athletes earned All-American honours in either cross-country or track and field.
"I never expected him to leave Syracuse," says Knight, the 22-year-old Toronto native and former St. Michael's College School student recruited by Fox in 2014. "I was just talking out of excitement [after worlds]."
Knight's notable NCAA achievements:
Knight recalls being impressed early in the recruiting stage by Fox, who watched him that summer in Moncton at the Canadian track and field championships and the IAAF world junior championships in Eugene, Ore. The well-respected coach, who led Syracuse to nine conference championships since taking over the program in 2005, was determined to know as much as possible about his latest recruit before the start of the school season.
"We connected and it went beyond running," Knight says. "He knows I'm into basketball, can take a joke and likes having fun and laughing with kids on the team. He likes you as a human being and wants to see you grow. I could go on for hours about how much I adore him and how great of a coach he is."
Knight always admired the way Fox approached his athletes at Syracuse if they disappointed him during training or competition.
"He'd let you know he was disappointed but that things would be okay," says Knight, adding their relationship has evolved with a shared appreciation of other sports and music. "He would never yell, belittle you or make you feel bad about yourself.
"One of the things I found out is he likes hip-hop music and rap. Once on a road trip, he asked me to play some music on his phone because we were using his GPS. I was going through his playlist and I'm like, 'What the heck? Head coach listens to this stuff? He's pretty cool.'"
On Monday, Reebok president Matt O'Toole praised the addition of Knight and Fox, stating in a news release that Reebok Boston Track Club would help elevate the company's product offering as a leading worldwide designer, marketer and distributor of fitness and lifestyle footwear, apparel and equipment.
Knight says he allowed his parents, Anthony and Jennifer, to "get a feel" for the shoe companies interested in their son before speaking with them on the phone at the end of the collegiate season.
Inspiration for kids
Besides the chance to continue working with Fox, Knight was drawn to Reebok by the support from upper management and the company's desire to have an elite running program to inspire runners at various levels.
"I'm excited for many different reasons," says Knight, who received his degree in social work. "It's going to be cool that I can devote my whole time to athletics and be part of something new. It's a chance to be an inspiration for kids who want to be pro athletes, but also to those who just want to run to be in shape."
Knight also looks forward to travelling, training at altitude and working with a trainer to better learn how to take care of his body.
Former Syracuse runner Martin Hehir, whom Knight credits for playing a significant role in his collegiate success, has also joined the Reebok Boston outfit.
"In my first year, he was the best guy on the team," says Knight, who will live in Charlottesville, Va., and split time training there and in Boston. "He was my idol. Every day at practice, I would see how hard he worked and I just wanted to catch up to Martin and be Martin."
Knight's first race as a professional will be at NACAC track and field championships on Aug. 10-12 at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, where "countless supporters" from the time he began running in Grade 10 will be in attendance.
"Becoming a pro runner is a huge milestone in my life," says Knight, adding he would like to purchase a Gucci couch to celebrate turning professional. "Being able to share that with people that were there at the beginning when nobody knew if I was going to be good, is special,"
In the coming months, Knight will be focused on the world championships next summer in Qatar and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 after failing to meet the 5,000m qualifying standard for the 2016 Summer Games by 1.36 seconds.
"It helped me become a more mentally fit and a stronger runner," he said of the missed opportunity. "You have to accept it as your history and make sure it doesn't happen again.
"I've improved so much in such a small window of time. Even mentally, I've become a more stable, tactical racer. As 2020 approaches, I'm not taking no for an answer, but my goals go way beyond just making the [Canadian] Olympic team."