Marco Arop once drew attention on the basketball court for his ability to quickly gobble up so much space on the court with his long strides.
The 6-foot-4 runner planned on playing basketball in college, and dreamt of the NBA. But his high school basketball coach Mike Wojcicki wondered if his incredible motor made him more suited to track and field.
The 23-year-old Arop, one of the most talented 800-metre runners on the planet, followed a similar path from basketball to track and field as Olympic champions Damian Warner and Andre De Grasse.
Arop said his success story is a message to kids: don’t be afraid to keep looking until you find the right fit.
“I’m huge on being open and trying new things,” said Arop. “Basketball was a huge passion of mine for a long time, as I’m sure it was for Damian and Andre and many other athletes, but I was always open to different sports and I always wanted to know what was best for me and try to find out what other opportunities I had.”
Arop, who cruised to an easy victory in his 800-metre semifinal at the Canadian track and field championships Friday night, switched course after high school.
He opted to run club track in Edmonton for a year until he was fast enough to head to Mississippi State on a scholarship.
“I found that there was an opportunity to go further in track and reach my Olympic dreams. It’s not leaving basketball behind or anything, but it’s just doing what I’m really good at, and that was track, that was my calling and yeah, being able to just embrace it.
“I think everybody should be willing to open up and try new things and find what you’re good at. And you never know.”
Arop’s Olympic debut didn’t quite live up to his dreams. He led wire-to-wire to win his heat last summer in Tokyo, but faded badly down the final stretch to finish seventh in his semifinal. A student of the sport, he’s watched the video numerous times.
“I’m a bit of an over-thinker when it comes to that, so I’ll watch races the night of and keep repeating it try to learn where I made the mistakes, anything I might have missed,” he said. “And yeah, I feel like I know exactly what I did wrong.”
After climbing the medal podium in every one of his Diamond League races last season, he was crushed to leave the Olympics after the semifinal.
“I like the fact that he was devastated,” said Canada’s head coach Glenroy Gilbert.
The men’s 800 is one of the highlights of this weekend’s national meet, particularly with the world championships only a month away.
Arop was a 17-year-old fan sitting in the stands watching the 2016 Canadian championships in Ottawa. He was impressed with Brandon McBride’s 800 victory.
Two years later, in his senior debut, Arop led from the gun to beat McBride in his national debut.
Just .06 of a second separates the two runners’ best times.
Arop has been chasing McBride’s Canadian record of 1:43.20, set in 2018, for a while.
McBride, a 28-year-old from Windsor, Ont., has the faster time between the two this season, and also won his heat at the Canadian championships at McLeod Athletic Park.
The 800 final is Saturday night.
Gilbert said the sky’s the limit in terms of Arop’s potential.
“I can see this kid being on the podium, because I think he’s that good talent-wise,” he said.
Arop developed a reputation as a front-runner, and said it was because he was “the largest racer in the field.
“Being clear of all the other guys, it sort of helps not having to bump and fight for positioning,” he said. “And training on my own, so having to lead a race start to finish doesn’t feel that foreign to me.”
But there were disadvantages as well, which he’s learning. For one, it requires more energy to lead the entire way.
His early races this season show his race strategy is maturing. He won the Diamond League 800 in Birmingham, England, and was third in Doha. He did not run from the front in either one.
“That is part of him building a tool box and saying, ‘OK, that was maybe at the time not a good idea, so what are we going to do differently?”’ Gilbert said. “Last two races, there was a complete shift in the way he approached it . . . he’s setting himself up to recognize what the race looks like, and how to respond to that race.”
Arop was born in Khartoum, Sudan. The civil war forced the family of eight – Arop has five brothers – to flee when Arop was two.
They went to Egypt, then Saskatoon, then finally settled in Edmonton.
Arop’s older brother, Mangisto, played basketball for Gonzaga and Indiana State, and for Canada’s national team at the youth level.
“We all did sports growing up, . . . but I’ve heard before that I’ve stolen most of the athleticism in the family because everybody else has sort of got away from sports,” the soft-spoken Arop said with a laugh.
Arop will be one of Canada’s top athletes to watch at the world championships July 15-24 in Eugene, Ore.
But there will surely be many more international events for the young runner down the road, including the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Where does he feel he is in his progression in the sport?
“It’s been a lot of up and down. Sometimes I feel like I’ve got it, and then other times, I take a hit,” he said.
“But at this point, it’s just somewhere in the middle of the journey. I don’t know when I’m going to reach that destination, or when I’ll feel like I’ve finally figured it out. I don’t know if I ever will. But it’s all been fun.”