Fast Fame: How These Young Track And Field Athletes Have Dealt With Their Social Media Buzz
MileSplit caught up with seven young athletes to discuss life on the social media platform, and a future beyond it
Dominick Hogan had always been the kind of athlete who spoke his mind heading into a track and field workout he wasn’t particularly fond of.
“Don’t like that one bit.”
Or express his feelings when he was chosen for a relay he really didn’t want to run.
“Nope, nah, not that 4x4.”
Or been able to tell his coach how he really felt about a situation.
“Man, coach this hurts. Why are we doing this?”
But up until last year, the 20-year-old student-athlete competing in NCAA Division III track and field had always been an audience of one. Few outside his close inner-circle had ever really seen the ThatsDominick experience.
And then the Penn State Harrisburg sprinter, a 2018 D.C. Woodrow Wilson graduate, downloaded TikTok in September of last year. While his first video was a goof on microwaving his phone, Hogan would ultimately make a brilliant decision over his next video that would set him down a path of what’s now a healthy road of followers.
He leaned in on his own personal experiences.
His second post, a commentary on how sprinters truly feel before competition, generated his first breakout piece, garnering 138,000 views and 20,000 likes in a span of 24 hours. Two days later, there was the riff on the 400m, and then a jab at cross country, and then a missive on that one kid who saves all his energy for the last practice rep.
His first six videos, produced over one month on the service, generated over 1 million views combined.
“At first, I wasn’t going to tell anyone about it. It was just a fun thing for me to do on the side,” Hogan said recently. “But then it blew up.”
While Hogan continues to forge his way on the platform, with just over 88,000 followers, his success has echoed a larger network of influencers inside the niche community of track and field, many of whom aren’t even professional athletes.
Some are teenagers with over 100,000 followers, like Yorba Linda (CA) High School’s Siena Palicke — one of California’s top 50 distance runners — and Rham (CT) High School’s Edith Walker, an athlete looking to break 5 minutes in the mile.
And then there are others who have more-notable career arcs — and thusly, higher follower counts — like the University of Georgia’s Matthew Boling, Kentucky’s Masai Russell, and Harvard’s Sam Welsh, all of whom have over 200,000 followers.
Perhaps, it’s not surprising that as one’s athletic career grows, so too does the social media audience around them. Florida State’s Paul Stafford has just 10,000 followers, though he became the Seminoles’ No. 1 runner in cross country this season and perhaps, by extension, might be able to move his follower count upward at some point over the next year, if only because of the notoriety.
But as these audiences grow, so too does the responsibility, in equal and different ways. High schoolers with dreams of college athletics will have to be aware of lurking companies looking to collaborate for profit off their audiences, while older athletes with inside knowledge of how the NCAA works ultimately will have to be more mindful of just what’s acceptable and what’s not to post — at least until legislation allows for student-athletes to profit off their likenesses.
While it’s true that platforms like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok can help build brands that ultimately help negotiate potential business opportunities down the road for those able to generate mass appeal, there are also drawbacks into what that social investment might cost as a result, from emotional distress to impacts on physical performance in athletics.
“I would say sometimes I do get a little stressed out,” said Palicke, who finished fourth at the CIF Division 3 State Cross Country Championships in 2019. “It hits me, that I have all these people I have to impress. Or that I might need to perform well in this meet or out kick this girl at the finish.
Many of the athletes who spoke to MileSplit for this story shared a common reason for why each jumped on TikTok.
The pandemic contributed to an overwhelming sense of boredom when they weren’t training for their respective sports or studying.
As concerns over COVID-19 hit astronomical levels in March, it forced a vast majority of the general public indoors. And for young adults who were looking for new interests over that stretch, TikTok became an outlet.
“My roommate and I were still in Tallahassee,” Stafford said, “and we were looking for things to do. We honestly were doing videos and trying to see if we could get them to blow up. We were having fun with it.”
While Hogan, Welsh and Walker were ahead of the curve last year, downloading the app in September, November and December, respectively, Boling joined just as he was holing up indoors in March. Palicke, Russell and Stafford did the same, coming on to the service just as their social lives were slowing down.
“It was purely out of boredom, honestly,” Palicke said of her download. “That was kind of right when school ended and I didn’t have much to do. I knew it was getting some hype, so I downloaded it. My goal at first wasn’t to become any sort of someone on it.”
While TikTok remains relatively new — it was launched in the United States in August of 2018 — and remains reminiscent of Vine, another popular short-video service that ultimately shutdown in 2017, there’s no doubt that it’s one of the most popular apps in the world right now. It has over a billion installs, including over 165 million downloads in the U.S. alone.
Lots of things are going viral, and so are people, like Nathan Apodaca, the tatted-up Idaho skateboarder drinking cranberry juice jamming to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”
Athletes are also being afforded opportunities to build platforms. Beyond the individuals MileSplit spoke to, there are other track and field athletes who have massive audiences, like Arkansas’ Hunter Woodhall, a double-amputee NCAA sprinter who has over 2 million followers, and his girlfriend Tara Davis, a hurdler at the University of Texas who’s followed by over 100,000 people.
Success is happening not just on TikTok, either. Spencer Brown, a former All-American for Georgetown who developed the popular YouTube channel The Athlete Special, signed with Brooks in August on a trial basis -- relatively speaking, Brown’s performances could have landed him a professional deal elsewhere, although his marketing appeal likely was a major factor. Former Texas A&M distance runner Ryan Trahan, originally a running YouTuber and now more of a life-blogger, has morphed into one of the site’s rising stars, with over 2.5 million followers.
For the lucky few, social media stardom can usher in financial success depending on how they manage it.
“There certainly is a potential there for the future if I cultivate the right brand,” said Welsh, who’s studying economics at Harvard and may pursue investment banking. “If I get into finance, I don’t see it as anything other than a cool thing for being in finance. In regards to athletics, though, I am going to be an athlete for my whole life.”
Saying that, Welsh doesn’t do anything half-hearted. The 20-year-old NCAA All-American in the discus in 2019 makes sure everything is always buttoned up. And that’s led to a channel that produces track and field and athletics content.
He’s not just content to make any video, though. He studies how certain posts go viral, and then tries to build content with similar concepts ... only featuring his own experiences. If his career turns the corner, he says, his account could yield some big returns.
Welsh has aspirations of qualifying for the Olympics some day as a thrower.
“I’m still young and have a lot to learn, but I’ve learned a lot through my journey, through my track and field experiences,” he said. “The way I see it, the more people I can inspire, the better. That’s honestly why I do it. It’s why I post content in the first place.”
Long-term track goals also remain for Boling, who is hoping to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2021. He remains one of the more powerful young figures in track and field, with legions of followers on all social media platforms. But his involvement in social media also has an added benefit, too. Boling is currently studying marketing at Georgia. Even if his athletics career never takes off beyond college, he has plans to stay within the sport.
“I want to work with athletes somehow,” he said. “I can’t imagine a job that doesn’t include athletics. Where I’m at, marketing would be the most interesting thing. I ultimately want to make connections with brands.”
Of course, Boling is a good example of how a brand identity can blossom, given the right career moment. He became a cultural phenomenon a year ago in Texas when he broke 10 seconds in the 100m as a high school senior, which prompted massive follower counts on Twitter and Instagram. This past winter, Boling was second overall in the 200m at the SEC Indoor Championships.
But Boling has also been lucky. He says he’s never quite let that stardom go to his head, even as he’s constantly reminded of who he is at meets, or remains a figure whom fans want pictures or autographs of.
Boling jokingly says his father, Mark, is his de facto manager -- and that is a quite literal joke, as NCAA athletes cannot have managers. There have been many times when Boling has sought advice on how to manage his many platforms from the man he trusts most.
“When you have a good amount of followers, sometimes you can feel pressure to post content that people will keep liking,” Boling said his father told him. “But that’s a trap. You can’t let that affect your performance on the other side. Social media isn’t my job.”
In the first weeks and months after Edith Walker, 17, downloaded TikTok in December of 2019, the Connecticut teenager focused on producing videos around the high school experience.
There were posts with friends, a video with her dog, several takes on cross country problems and a review of her latest state indoor meet — she fell during a race, by the way.
And then in March, Walker blew up with a single post about a resistance sprint workout with a parachute. The post generated over 9 million views.
What had been a small account of followers, suddenly accumulated tens of thousands of fans within weeks and a fair percentage of her posts got at least a half a million views. Nearly a year later, she has over 100,000 followers.
The wave of popularity sucked Walker in and she became preoccupied with the platform. Almost every video she tried something interesting, and she posted nearly every day over the summer.
“During quarantine I let it consume me because all I had to do was run and that,” Walker said.
“I went through phases of pushing myself or being hard on myself,” she added. “Sometimes I would post funny things about running and my view counts would go up or down, which was normal. Then I would have waves of several viral videos and then have others that flopped. I’d wonder, ‘What am I doing wrong?’”
As an athlete, she has aspirations of competing in college one day — her dream school is the University of Connecticut — and her marks could potentially translate into a spot on a roster, with an outdoor 800m best of 2:19.27 and an indoor 1,600m time of 5:20.47.
But at 17, Walker is also in a position few of her peers could understand. Inside Rham High School, she’s the TikTok famous girl, the one who’s been granted an audience far beyond her school’s or her city’s or her state’s limits. And there’s not a textbook on managing that road. How do I handle this exactly?
There have been moments where she’s struggled with it. Perhaps unknowingly, even, there have been decisions that could come back to haunt her. Walker confirmed she’s been paid for at least one post made on her account, which may or may not raise issues into NCAA eligibility.
But in recent weeks, she hasn’t posted at all, confirming she’s more interested in focusing on her current season.
“It definitely was more in my life then, but I’ve definitely tried to taper it back. I know it’s hard to find a healthy balance but it’s rewarding once you do.”
The 17-year-old Palicke, meanwhile, has also dealt with drawbacks and the pressure to post good content.
“At first I worried if it would take up more of my time and effort, that it would distract me,” she said. “But I’ve actually found that it’s been more of a motivator.”
The UCLA signee has built her TikTok narrative around her journey in distance running, with popular posts featuring her workouts, runs and thoughts after particular competitions. Her friends and boyfriend are also in her posts sometimes.
“I do try to post mostly about running and my running life,” she said. “That’s who I appeal to on TikTok, or who others might look for.”
Palicke seems to have grasped the very ideal of TikTok success: Managing to appeal to your audience, without ever really directly talking to your audience.
Palicke, though, is also in an interesting position once she graduates high school.
While she wants to pursue a pre-med major while running Division 1 for the Bruins, she will also be in Los Angeles, a city where fame sometimes follows those in search of it.
Like never before, Palicke will have opportunities to capitalize off her platforms, if she so chooses.
“I know a lot of people might see it as a whirlwind, this girl getting all these followers,” Palicke said. “But I keep thinking it’s really fun. It’s really fun and a great opportunity. I’m not overwhelmed.”
Dominick Hogan is already thinking about the future.
Two years into his time at Penn State Harrisburg, he’s accomplished so much, from success in his studies, to a booming social media presence. But maybe even bigger?
He’s also a legitimate sprinter now, too, and could move up to the main campus in State College and walk-on to the Nittany Lions.
He’s lowered his 100m best down to 10.85 (+1.9) and his 200m best to 21.68 (+1.1). While those marks won’t win conference championships, they’re good enough to compete on most Division I rosters.
“My fast twitch muscles have definitely increased,” said Hogan, who never broke 22 in high school and never ran the 100m. “So that’s definitely the plan.”
But even beyond college graduation, Hogan is also visualizing what he wants his next step to be as a professional. If he becomes a NCAA Division I sprinter, that could ultimately help legitimize his CV as he looks to start an athletics gym in the future.
And his large audience on social media could help bring in high-end clients.
“I have a brand already, Pure Bred Athletics,” Hogan said. “My end goal is to own my own gym and be a trainer. I’d also have a YouTube page.”
Kentucky’s Masai Russell, 20, similarly hopes her audience can carry over post-collegiately.
While her social media strategy is light on athletics content and more on visual performance — like fun dances — she also believes a strong platform can help boost a potential business down the road.
“I’m ready to come out with my own clothing line,” she said.
She can’t connect her business to her social media accounts just yet, she said, due to NCAA guidelines. But the plan is there.
Russell also wants to build a traveling training business, where she sets up shop on the road and trains clients of various appeal.
“Just using my platform,” she said. “I’m trying to take advantage of everything that I have. I realize my follower count might go down the moment I leave Kentucky and take off the uniform, but anyone who knows me personally knows that I’m a very transparent, a very confident person. People will see who I am.
“Just putting out good content,” she added. “This is bigger than sports.”
Russell seems better prepared to handle the social disturbances of social media more than most. She tells it how it is.
“People say some very weird stuff,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Come on. Get out of here.’ You can’t let someone behind the screen determine who you are.”
If you’re committed enough, the theory is, you’ll earn a viral post sooner or later.
Every athlete MileSplit spoke to for this story has had at least one.
Take Stafford for example.
The Florida State junior’s biggest hit was something he didn’t really even think much of. With a long 16-miler planned on orange-colored clay roads in Lake Wales in May, he had a pair of buddies follow him, filming throughout his journey. He cut the video in less than 30 minutes and then dropped hip hop music behind the clip.
Two million views.
“It was insane,” Stafford said. “It got to the point where people were commenting in other languages. Like, ‘Hey Paul, mate, you should check out these hills in the UK.’”
Walker posted a video comparing the perils of girls attire to boys attire and that one earned four million views. Welsh has posted multiple videos of him jumping over 40 inches — a million here, two million there, another million.
Boling’s exhibited some truly creative posts, like his most recent 1-million-plus monster, a goof on all the things he could (not) go pro in besides track. Another post saw him long jump over 80 red Solo cups.
Palicke’s posts have been so popular, aggregation accounts have taken her videos and reposted them on Instagram.
“That’s kind of cool,” she said.
But perhaps no one was quite clear on how things went viral, or just why they did.
Take Hogan’s experience for example.
Early this October, he filmed a series of videos on the track to challenge Arkansas’ Hunter Woodhall to a blind 400m race.
While the post was slickly edited and creative, the Arkansas athlete never responded and Hogan only generated 9,000 views. He also wasted roughly two hours putting everything together.
But his video the previous week?
Hogan had been in a home gym when he tripped on a weight, smacking his head on a bar. The sound it reminded him of, he said, was like someone getting punched in a cartoon.
The lightbulb went off.
Hogan didn’t even bother to finish the workout. He rushed to his phone, then filmed a series of clips of him tripping on weights, foam rollers and bars.
The edit took roughly 15 minutes.
Within a day, it had over a million views.