Clinton Womack has long shown an ability to adapt to new situations. It has been a trademark of his from his days as a track and basketball standout at Central Gwinnett up to his graduation in 2004, to his track career at Xavier University, and now having returned to his alma mater as head girls cross country coach and a assistant on the Black Knights boys program, as well as both track and field programs and the boys basketball program. Womack, who won a state championship in the 800-meter run his senior year at Central, recently spoke with staff writer David Friedlander about some of the biggest adjustments he’s had to make, including running distances, adjusting to life up north in college and being a pioneer at Xavier
DF: So you were a two-sport athlete when you went to school at Central. Just by looking at your size, I get the feeling basketball may have been your first sport.
CW: I always had a passion for basketball. That’s my first love and my first sport. Running is what got me to college. I got a scholarship to Xavier, so I was like ‘That’s what’s going to work for me.’
DF: You told me earlier that some of your track coaches initially tried to convince you to try the jumping events, which I imagine comes from your basketball skill set. How did you wind up running middle distances?
CW: I was just more of a natural 400, 800 and cross country runner. It was just a natural fit. My father was a collegiate runner, as well. So it’s kind of in my family and in my blood. So it just kind of worked out that way. I was more a natural runner than anything else.
DF: Of course, high school cross country is only a 5K race. I saw in your bio on Xavier’s web site that you ran the 10,000 meters at least one year there. Bumping up from cross country and only running as much as 1,600 meters in high school had to have been a huge adjustment for you, no?
CW: In high school, I actually placed eighth at state my senior year in cross country. So I guess it’s one of those natural things where I had the capacity to run longer distances. So it was a nice combination of being able to run longer, but I had the … muscles to be able to sprint at the end, as well. But mainly, in college, the reason we ran the 10K was collegiately when they run regionals (in cross country), it’s 10,000 meters. But on the track, I never ran it. It was mostly 400 and 800.
DF: Was college the first time you’d ever run that long a distance?
CW: Yeah, (and) it was definitely tougher. It was something that I had to get used to. College running, in general, I had to get used to. My first couple of workouts were really hard for me trying to get adjusted to. … But by my junior and senior years, I got pretty good at it. I was one of our top runners. … But yeah, it was an adjustment, but I had good coaching in college.
DF: I have to think you bring that up to the kids you coach, right?
CW: Absolutely. The nice thing is that I always tell them that student comes before athlete. First. you’ve got to take care of the classroom. Obviously with sports, it’s one of those things where … if you’re not willing to put the work in, you’re not going to get the results you want. So being able to share the fact that I was an athlete when I was in college and I knew what I to do and what you have to go through to make it to that level, it does help me a lot with the kids I’m coaching.
DF: Of course, not all of the adjustments you had to make were on the track or the course. Were you familiar at all with the Cincinnati area before you went to Xavier? That had to be a big adjustment having grown up around Lawrenceville.
CW: It was definitely tougher. Little known fact about Xavier. They didn’t really have a running program when I first got there. They had a cross country program, but not necessarily a track program. So I was actually the first African-American they had to run track at Xavier at that time. But it was definitely an adjustment. My first winter, I didn’t go to class that first time (it snowed) because I thought school was cancelled. I was like, ‘Oh, it’s a snow day, right?’ And they’re like, ‘No, we still have class.’ I was like, “Well I’m not going because where I’m from, it’s a snow day.’
DF: I’m sure that went over really well with your coaches.
CW: I e-mailed everybody and I’m like, ‘Hey guys, I don’t have the (warm) clothes for this. So I’m going to end up freezing.’ It was definitely an adjustment trying to figure out how to adjust to the winters. They don’t have a whole lot of summertime in warm weather in Cincinnati. It’s pretty much winter 10 months out of the year. But it was definitely an adjustment, but I loved it. I loved every minute of being at Xavier. It was the best four years of my life.
DF: Let’s go back a second to something you brought up. You were the first African-American runner at Xavier? Being the first of anything has got to be pretty special, but that has to be particularly special for you, right?
CW: It was really weird because that running program was so brand new, and they didn’t have a whole lot of funding for it. It wasn’t a big program. Not like what it is now with Big East (conference) funding. When I first got there, it was (basically) just me on the team.
DF: Which brings up the question of scholarships. Were you on full scholarship back then or partial?
CW: By the end of my four years, I was on full scholarship. I was partial for a while.
DF: That had to be really tough because on partial scholarship, you have to come up with at least part of the cost of your education. And that can’t be cheap at a private school like Xavier.
CW: Yeah. I tell my kids all the time (that) I ran cross country and track, so that was a part-time job. I worked 10 hours a week and took 18 hours of classes. So I was constantly busy. It was definitely an adjustment getting use to managing my time, for sure.
DF: So even as busy a schedule as you now have as a teacher and coach, that might seem like a breeze compared to those days, no?
CW: Yeah, it definitely has helped me as a teacher because you have to be able to adjust on the fly. You’ve got to be able to juggle so many things at once. I’m used to being busy. I’m actually better when I’m busy.
DF: And even though your head coaching job is in cross country, you’re still getting a taste of coaching basketball while on Emmett Rouse’s staff.
CW: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m ninth-grade coach and assistant JV, assistant varsity. I get a little bit of everything.
DF: Out of everything you’ve experienced as a student, an athlete and now a teacher and a coach, what are you most proud of?
CW: Honestly, I’m most proud of coming from Central. Unfortunately sometimes, Central gets a bad rap. The community is great and the kids are great. They just need that extra push and extra love every now and then. So I’m most proud that I could put Central on the (cross country and track) map when I did. At the time, especially for running, we weren’t really known for running or cross country. We had a couple of sprinters here and there, but as far as distance runners, it was the Parkviews, the Brookwoods, all those guys. So it was nice to be able to get up there and compete with those guys and be able to be one of the top runners in the state.