UC Irvine's Charles Jock beats Iowa's Erik Sowinski to the finish… (Charlie Neibergall / Associated…)
From his days hiding in Ethiopian forests at his father's side to his current challenge of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics, nothing has come easily for middle-distance runner Charles Jock. But he prefers it that way.
"I'm comfortable being uncomfortable, if that makes sense," said Jock, a recent UC Irvine graduate.
Jock, the 800-meter NCAA champion, on Friday runs in the first round of 800-meter qualifying races at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore.
The 22-year-old knows what it's like to be uncomfortable and how to adapt.
Seven years ago Jock lost his father, John, to liver cancer. He was so devastated he skipped school for a while, but now he devotes his efforts to honoring the man who sacrificed so much so that Charles could have a better life. "It was hard to lose someone that you look up to and aspire to be. You always want to impress your father," Charles said.
His father, a dentist in his native Sudan, escaped the country along with his wife, Mary, because of the ongoing civil war and genocide. They fled to Ethiopia, where John was a political prisoner when Charles was born. Charles was 3 when his family moved to the United States, so his memories of Ethiopia are murky. Jock is now an American citizen.
"I'm sure things he went through physically are somewhere buried in that brain, with the physical strife he went through," UC Irvine track Coach Vince O'Boyle said.
Jock said his experiences make him a better competitor because he knows how to dig a little deeper to come out on top. On Friday, Jock will compete against better-known 800-meter runners, but his 1 minute 44.67-second qualifying time is the third-best in the field.
"Experiences make the person, so a person that has been through a lot more trials when it comes to something as simple as sports, they are willing to give more of themselves," he said.
It was not until his sophomore year in high school that Jock began competing in track. His original strategy in 800-meter races was to sit in second or third place until the final 100 meters, then give everything he had. Now, he tries to take the lead from the start and never look back.
O'Boyle noticed his potential and recruited him to UC Irvine, from which Jock graduated last week with a degree in planning, policy and design. "As he's gotten better as a runner, he's gotten better as a leader," O'Boyle said.
As a junior, Jock fell short of an NCAA championship in the 800-meter race by four-hundredths of a second when Virginia's Robby Andrews edged him at the finish.
"I worked so hard, and to lose that way, it was a horrible feeling," Jock said. "I didn't want that feeling again this year. I didn't want to make it exciting or anything. I just wanted to be the clear-cut winner."
Jock was exactly that on June 8, when he easily won the 800-meter NCAA championship for UC Irvine's first individual track title in 34 years.
He said the win was "more relief than anything." Quickly, his focus shifted to the Olympic trials.
O'Boyle said it wouldn't surprise him to see Jock qualify for the 2012 Olympics, but also for the 2016 and 2020 Games because middle-distance runners typically peak in their mid-20s to age 30.
"He's gotten better every year," O'Boyle said. "Four years from now, if everything stayed the same and all the stars line up, he has tremendous upside."
Jock said he tries to tackle his goals one at a time, while never forgetting the journey that led him to this point.
"It's like my mom and dad have written this great story by making all the sacrifices," he said. "I think we're writing a pretty great ending to the story."
But Jock's story might just be getting started.