TEMPE – Dayton Carlson surprised everyone at the Pac-12 Championships last month in Eugene, Oregon. Everyone except himself.
The Arizona State freshman now finds himself on one of track and field’s biggest stages – the NCAA outdoor championships this week at Hayward Field in Eugene.
Entering the Pac-12 championship meet, Carlson was tied as the fifth-fastest 800-meter runner. But the Gilbert native won the first heat of the 800-meter prelims to automatically advance to the next day’s final.
“I wanted to just get out really quick and get good positioning, and I definitely did today,” Carlson said after his Pac-12 prelims win on May 14. “I wasn’t planning on leading the race today, but that’s just how it turned out.”
With his 54.02-second first lap, the freshman led wire-to-wire and had the fastest preliminary time (1:49.02).
“My expectation is to win,” Carlson said before the 800-meter final on May 15. “I think out of anyone here, I can compete with anyone that’s in that final tomorrow as long as I’m in it at (600 meters).”
In the final, Carlson was sitting in second-to-last after a 54-second first lap. But the former Casteel High School standout remained calm and didn’t panic.
“I just needed to stay relaxed regardless of where I was at,” he said. “I knew the pace was kind of slow going through 600 (meters). I knew with the training that I have I could make a push at 200 (meters).”
Carlson made that push and briefly took the lead before trading places with Oregon sophomore Elliott Cook during the final 50 meters.
“I made too big of a push and tried to keep my push going all the way through the last 200,” Carlson said, “but I just didn’t have enough in me the last 50 to go out there and get first, but, regardless, it was a great performance.”
Cook beat Carlson in a photo finish, clocking a 1:48.81 to Carlson’s 1:48.98.
“I knew he (Carlson) was that kind of athlete,” said Patrick Henner, ASU’s cross country head coach and distance track and field coach. “It didn’t surprise me at all. He’s a gamer. He seems to like the big stage, so it was very exciting. … For a freshman going to the Pac-12s and getting second, that’s pretty darn good.”
Henner said it’s not possible “to really predict someone’s improvement curve, but … I knew he was a big-time talent with great range.”
“He was running some really fast 4×400 splits in high school for a distance runner,” Henner said. “He had great cross-country seasons, a very good two-mile, so when somebody has that kind of range, it definitely indicates a lot of talent and a high ceiling.”
Despite Carlson’s stellar Pac-12 performance, he faced stiff competition at the West Regionals in late May in Arkansas and was ranked 31st in the 800 meters.
Because only the top 12 event finishers at both the West and the East preliminary meets advance to the NCAA championships, Carlson was on the outside looking in.
However, in the first round of the preliminaries, he ran a personal record of 1:48.17 to finish ninth overall and second in his heat, which automatically qualified him for the quarterfinals.
In his quarterfinal race, Carlson PR’d again and ran 1:47.79 in the second of three heats, but after finishing fifth in his heat, Carlson had to wait until the conclusion of the final heat because only the top three from each heat advanced, plus the next three fastest times.
After the final heat concluded, Carlson narrowly punched his ticket to Eugene, becoming the final nonautomatic qualifier.
“Just survive and advance, really, it’s my first one ever,” Carlson said of his goals for the NCAA championships. “And so I think it’s going to be fun to get out there and get some experience with the top guys in the nation. I’m really excited for it, and I think I can make it to the final round and do really well.
“I was talking to my coach last week, and I think my warmup was pretty bad in Arkansas. I just didn’t get everything done and so I think I’m really going to focus on my warmup there and get out the first 200 (meters) and be really aggressive.”
Henner agreed with the strategy.
“Dayton has one of the best finishes of anyone I’ve ever coached, so we know he has that,” he said. “I think in the first round on Wednesday, he’s just going to have to be in a little better position coming into the last 200 meters.”
Carlson has faced plenty of adversity this season. The No. 1 recruit out of Arizona has been hampered with shin splints for the past six months and more recently has battled a quad injury.
“He was a little bit limited in his training this year,” Henner said. “He had a little hip (injury) at the end of high school that affected him some of the summer, and then he had some shin splints over the winter.”
But adversity is nothing new to Carlson, who has been battling it off the track his entire life.
“He’s been raised in a single-parent home, and with that comes a lot of challenges,” said Dayton’s mother, Jennifer Carlson. “He’s really overcome quite a bit just personally and really grown from a lot of that just in the home and just persevered through quite a bit.”
Whitney Lemieux, Carlson’s coach at Casteel High in Gilbert – where Carlson was Arizona Gatorade runner of the year as a senior – said challenges at home and on the track can’t be underestimated.
“I know specifically going into college, and this first year, he’s been injured a lot,” Lemieux said. “So mentally, that takes a toll on you. And it’s very hard to come back from that.”
Dayton’s mother put him in a running club when he was in elementary school, but his abilities really took off in high school.
Despite offers from multiple Division I schools, Carlson prioritized staying close to home and became a Sun Devil.
“I love the idea of being close to home,” he said.
Jennifer Carlson said the choice was his.
“He had so many options to really go anywhere, I really thought he was going to go,” she said. “I left that decision up to him. And, you know, at the end of the day, you have work and family and school and everything else, but the one thing you always come home to is your family, and he wanted to keep that in focus.
“We’re built out of unconditional love. And we’re very strong, and we’re very tight and close.”
Carlson visited Michigan State during spring break, but in addition to East Lansing being miles away from family, the gray skies turned him away.
“Dayton loves the sunshine, the boy loves being outdoors running, doing anything,” Jennifer Carlson said. “It just makes his heart happy. When we took a trip to Michigan, it was rainy. It was cold. There was great people there, great school, great team. But it was far from home – and gloomy.”
ASU’s lack of a renowned distance program doesn’t bother Carlson; instead, he and Henner envision the legacy he can build.
“We want to build something really special here, and it’s important to us to keep a lot of the Arizona track and field athletes in the state of Arizona,” Henner said. “This state has a lot of great talent, and we feel like that if we can do that, then we can build a great program here at Arizona State.”
Carlson said he loves “being in a program where I can come on and make a big impact. That’s what I did in high school. … And I’m just happy I can do the same here.”
Carlson’s ties to his former high school coach run deep.
Lemieux, who also ran at ASU, taught Carlson in preschool while she was a student teacher at ASU.
“Me and her are really close,” Carlson said. “I mean, she was my preschool teacher, my assistant teacher, and so I’ve known her for a really long time. And so we’ve grown and grown together. I think really highly of her and she’s been able to help me a lot. She knows a lot about the sport.”
Carlson is a marketing major at Arizona State, but he’s also interested in running professionally after college.
“That’s definitely a big goal of mine,” he said. “I would love to be able to keep improving times after college and become one of the best in the sport.”
“It’s been a dream of his to go to Oregon, so he’s checked that box,” Jennifer Carlson said. “I believe he could do anything he puts his mind to.”
Carlson runs at 6:14 p.m. on Wednesday in the 800-meter semifinals at the NCAA outdoor championships (the race will be broadcast on ESPNU and the ESPN app). Carlson will feature in the second of three heats, where the top two from each heat plus the next three fastest times advance. Out of the 24 semifinalists, Carlson enters with the 12th-fastest time (the fourth-fastest in his heat of eight).