TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – On Saturday at precisely 4:08 p.m., Florida State freshman Trey Cunningham will climb into the starting blocks alongside Olympic and NCAA champions, before a national television audience. In fewer than eight seconds after the starter’s pistol fires, he will have an idea where he stands in pursuit of similar accomplishments.
Cunningham is competing in the Fred Schmertz 60-meter hurdles at the NYRR Millrose Games in New York City; part of an elite, eight-man field headed by 2012 Olympic gold medalist and 110-meter world record-holder Aries Merritt.
With a season-best of 7.54, Merritt is one of four in the field currently ranked among the top 11 in the world. He checks in at No. 5, ahead of two-time NCAA outdoor hurdles champ Devon Allen (No. 6, 7.58) in the event. Youngstown State junior Chad Zallow, the only other collegian in the field, and 2017 ACC indoor and outdoor hurdles champ Freddie Crittenden, formerly of Syracuse, are tied for 11th (7.65).
Representing the Noles for just the second time, Cunningham already ranks as the fourth-fastest 60-meter hurdler in program history. He debuted with a win at the Larry Wieczorek Invitational at Iowa on Jan. 20, where he ran 7.74 in the final. That currently ranks No. 6 in NCAA Division I and is a lock to qualify him for the NCAA Indoor Championships.
Yet there is plenty of evidence that the Winfield, Ala., native is just beginning to scratch the surface of his vast potential, largely because of what he accomplished on the same track at The Armory just 11 months ago.
Competing at the New Balance Indoor Nationals, Cunningham twice broke the IAAF World U20 record, highlighted by his standard-setting 7.40 in the finals over the 39-inch high school hurdles.
“I’m super excited because it’s the first time that I’ve been back since I broke the record,” Cunningham said. “There’s just something special about that place. It’s not even that I broke the record there. Running there is just important. It’s a part of track history.”
That reverence for the venue, and his record-setting performance on March 12, 2017, played no small part in landing an invitation to compete against some of the world’s best in the 111th running of the NYRR Millrose Games.
“It is very unusual for a former high school champion to be included in the field [as a college freshman], but he ran so well here last year,” Millrose Games meet director Ray Flynn said. “We’re delighted to have him.”
Cunningham is the first Seminole to compete at the Millrose Games as a collegian in FSU coach Bob Braman’s 18 years. That’s especially noteworthy because it spans a stretch when the FSU men won a pair of NCAA team titles, while the men and women combined for 40 individual national champions and produced 45 Olympians.
His presence alone, in an FSU uniform and before a national television audience (NBC, 4 p.m.), is a boon to the program. Equally important, it’s a rare opportunity for a 19-year-old to gauge himself against elite competition over 42-inch hurdles, the height he will be racing as a collegian and beyond.
“Trey is going to be a world-class hurdler some day, and getting the opportunity to go against some of the world’s best as a freshman is invaluable,” Braman said. “And I assure you, Trey will compete like a tiger. He won’t get caught up in the moment.”
Racing against the likes of Merritt, one of his role models in the event, provides a keen glimpse into the intricacies of competition at the elite level. While the presence of world-class talent is ideal for producing outstanding results, it also magnifies the smallest margins of error as races are almost always decided by hundredths of seconds.
“That’s how all of the races are now,” Cunningham said. “Basically, because everybody pretty much has the same baseline talent.
“It’s just how well you execute that race, because me clipping a hurdle versus the next person coming off that last hurdle [cleanly] means him getting to the ground faster and possibly beating me to the finish line. It’s tiny stuff like that, that matters now.”
Cunningham says winning is his first goal in every race, and lowering his personal-best time is always on the goals list as well. That’s what makes tackling a fast field, like the one he will face Saturday at The Armory, all the more exciting.
It has been a while since the 24-time Alabama high school state champion was seriously challenged in a hurdles race from out of the blocks through the final hurdle and across the finish line. Cunningham vividly remembers the race.
“Junior year at USA Juniors,” Cunningham said, referring to 110-meter finals the 2016 USATF Junior Outdoor Championships in Clovis, Calif. “It was me, Amere Lattin, Grant Holloway and Marcus Krah all at the finish line. The top four times in the World. Me and Grant tied and everything was separated by four-thousandths of the second. It was not fun to lose that race.”
For the record, Krah won in 13.25, followed by Lattin (13.32), Holloway and Cunningham, who had identical 13.37s through the hundredths.
Holloway, a sophomore at Florida and the defending NCAA hurdles champ indoors and outdoors as a freshman, currently leads the nation and ranks second in the world with a season-best 7.49.
“Everybody is on the same level now at this height [42 inches],” Cunningham said. “This race is going to be the same. This is just prepping me for the bigger meets, like ACCs and Nationals, because the competition is going to be intense either way.”
With a spot at the NCAA Indoor Championships field of 16 secured, Cunningham said he can approach the remainder of the regular season with a single-minded focus.
“Now it’s more about executing and seeing how low I can get the time for my own personal gain,” he said.
That he gets to do that against the very best, at a venue which conjures special memories, makes it all the more special.
“At The Armory there’s always music playing,” he said. “It’s a packed house. The atmosphere is just, ‘Go fast or go home.’ It brings the best out of everybody. That place is just special.”