Track and field athlete Devon Allen returned from the 2016 Summer Olympics and didn’t have a plan.
Jamie Cook, who had developed the standout hurdler into a two-time NCAA champion and Olympic qualifier, had moved across the country. After spending seven years as an assistant at the University of Oregon, Cook had been hired as Director of Track and Field and Cross Country at the Naval Academy.
Allen went home to Phoenix and began working with a new coach. It proved to be a mistake.
Two years into the next Olympiad, Allen realized he wasn’t making adequate progress.
“I wasn’t performing as well as I wanted and didn’t know what to do to fix things. I decided to go back to what had always worked, which meant training with Coach Cook,” Allen said. “In hindsight, I should have just moved to Maryland right away.”
While extremely busy overseeing three varsity programs, Cook agreed to find time to help Allen achieve his goal of making a second United States Olympic team.
So, Allen packed up his car and drove from Arizona to Maryland in March 2020. He rented an apartment in downtown Annapolis and joined the Navy track and field staff as a volunteer assistant.
Choosing to reunite with Cook has paid dividends for Allen, who began competition in the 110-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday morning. He is hoping to improve upon a fifth-place finish in the event at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“We had our last practice yesterday and Devon looked phenomenal,” Cook told The Capital last Tuesday. “I think he’s ready and really pumped up to compete in Tokyo.”
Allen finished second behind Grant Holloway at the United States Track and Field Olympic Trials in late June.
Holloway is the reigning world champion in the 110-meter hurdles and his winning time at the U.S. Trials (12.81 seconds) was second-fastest all-time. Allen was runner-up in 13.10 seconds despite getting off to what he called his worst start of the season.
Allen made up ground on Holloway between hurdles 5 through 10 then passed third-place finisher Daniel Roberts on the final sprint to the finish line. The 26-year-old believes he’s made significant improvements in the month since the trials.
“I think I ran pretty well considering I didn’t get the type of start I wanted. If I can put a good start together with the way I finished in the Olympic Trials final, then we’re going to be in a good spot,” Allen told The Capital on July 26, one day before departing for Tokyo. I feel very good about my position going into the Olympics. We think we’ve got things figured out.”
Cook felt Allen did a good job of “managing” the three rounds at the U.S. Trials and was unconcerned about the time or placement. “Devon did what he needed to do to make the team. He’s performing at a higher level now than he was at the trials,” Cook said.
In addition to Holloway, other top contenders in the 110-meter hurdles include Jamaica’s Ronald Levy, Japan’s Shunsuke Izumiya and France’s Aurel Manga. Allen was predicted to capture the bronze medal behind Holloway and Izumiya in a poll of Associated Press beat writers.
“I think Devon is confident, he’s healthy and ready to get after it,” Cook said. “Devon is the best competitor I’ve ever been around. I certainly think he’s a medal contender.”
Allen was a Track and Field News All-American at Brophy College Prep, where he was a state champion in four different events (110 and 300 hurdles, 100 and 200 dash) as a senior. He was named Arizona Gatorade Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year in 2012 and 2013.
Allen was equally accomplished on the football field as a wide receiver. He was rated a four-star prospect by Rivals.com, earned All-State honors from the Arizona Football Coaches Association and was selected for the 2013 Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl.
The 6-foot, 185-pounder received a football scholarship to Oregon with the understanding he would also be allowed to compete in track and field.
As a freshman, Allen ranked second on the team with 684 receiving yards and led the Ducks with seven touchdown catches despite missing the last two games of the season after getting injured on the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl. He finished with 41 receptions after quickly becoming a favorite target of quarterback Marcus Mariota, who would win the Heisman Trophy in 2014.
Cook began coaching Allen in January 2014 and gradually fine-tuned his technique and form. Five months later, Allen captured the NCAA championship in the 110-meter hurdles with the second-fastest time in collegiate history (13.16 seconds).
Allen missed the 2014 football season and 2015 outdoor track season after sustaining a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He returned to the gridiron in 2015 and appeared in 12 of 13 games, only catching nine passes for 94 yards.
Transitioning to indoor track and field, Allen regained his speed and strength in time to capture the NCAA championship in the 60-meter hurdles. He ascended to new heights during the outdoor season, claiming his second national championship in the 110 hurdles then winning the event at the U.S. Olympic Trials with a personal-record time of 13.03.
Allen arrived in Annapolis with 14 months to get himself right before the U.S. Trials. Navy’s outdoor track and field season was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March of 2020, enabling Cook to devote more time and attention to training Allen.
“I pretty much had Jamie to myself for the first few months of training, which was nice,” Allen said. “We had some productive practice sessions and I saw improvement pretty quickly. I was running 13.20 by May, which gave me great confidence because I’d only been doing full training for six weeks.”
Allen’s positive progression was interrupted in September when he underwent surgery for an undisclosed injury. It took six months to recover, and he did not return to training until March 2021. That left less than three months to get ready for the U.S. Trials.
“I would say I was feeling 100 percent at the end of May. It was a more condensed lead-up than I would have liked, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” Allen said. “You give Coach Cook a timeline and he’s going to put together the best plan. That’s pretty much what we did.
“I think we did an amazing job with the time we did have and the competitions I was able to enter,” he added.
Cook noted that Allen knows how to rehabilitate following surgeries and was not surprised he resumed hurdling faster than doctors had predicted. They set a plan of training two times a week through March then putting on the spikes and hurdling by April.
“We communicate really well and trust each other 100 percent. Devon entrusts me to put a plan in place then he just goes out and executes it,” Cook said. “I know how he operates so I can set the plan knowing this guy is going to do everything I ask. Sometimes I even have to back him off a bit.”
An observer can see the chemistry Allen and Cook have developed over the years just by watching an hour of a typical training session at Ingram Field, the outdoor track and field complex on the campus of the Naval Academy.
Allen had just completed a drill nicknamed “hammers” in which he jumps over hurdles positioned just a few yards apart. It is designed to work the lead leg. “Eyebrows,” Cook yells to Allen after the drill was completed the first time.
“That’s a cue to not be so upright, to maintain a slight forward lean with my whole upper body,” Allen explained. “You want to tilt your head down and look through your eyebrows.”
Cook has been coaching the hurdles for years and has developed numerous drills and come up with dozens of cues based off trial and error.
He has already been named Patriot League Coach of the Year 10 times in just four seasons at the helm.
“I think Jamie just has a good eye for watching someone train and spotting what works and what doesn’t,” Allen said. “He has the ability to coach an athlete to be a better athlete. I also think Jamie has been really dedicated to learning more about the hurdle event because we’re always trying to find something that will help.”
Another trait that makes Cook an outstanding coach is the willingness to listen to his athletes and take their thoughts into account, Allen said.
Allen began Olympic competition early Tuesday morning by winning his preliminary heat with a time of 13.21, advancing to Wednesday’s semifinals. Finals are slated for Thursday.
“Just making the finals is a challenge. It’s three successive days of hurdling, which is a unique schedule. You need to be good all three days,” Cook said. “I’m confident in Devon as a competitor. I know he’s healthy and ready to execute the plan we put in place. He’s as good as he’s ever been going into a major championship.”