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IOWA CITY — When asked what he wants to do after he graduates, Aaron Mallett stops for a second, grins and shyly shrugs.
In the Iowa senior hurdler’s head, however, he sees the bright lights. The dream, ever since he was a kid growing up in St. Louis, has been to become a professional track and field athlete. His drive, he said, comes from a deep desire to be better than everyone else in literally anything he does.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a late-night UNO game with teammates or the 60-meter hurdles at the national championships, he gets mad if he doesn’t win.
“I don’t like to be outdone,” Mallett said. “If I put myself out and do something, I want to be the best at it.”
Iowa head track coach Joey Woody has been jazzed with Mallett since the day they met. It wasn’t just Mallett’s speed or the titles he had racked up, but the willingness to do anything he possibly could to get better.
Woody raves about how Mallett was one of the only track prospects he’s come across who was as obsessed with watching film as he was.
It’s something a lot of coaches have their teams do in a group session to get better, but watching film on one’s own was a marker, in Woody’s eyes, of an athlete whose devotion wouldn’t have to be tested. Part of the drive also comes from his mother, Vernetta Nash, who said she instilled the strong work ethic from an early age.
Woody offered a scholarship to Mallett quickly, though he was hardly sure he’d get a chance to coach him. It was one of the first calls Mallett took and the hurdler had hardly even heard of Iowa’s track program before Woody came ringing.
“It was tough,” Woody said. “He was looking at a lot of good hurdle programs and I was extremely fortunate he chose Iowa.”
Not getting attention from Missouri and some of the other SEC and big-time Big 12 track programs didn’t make him happy. There was interest, but not a whole lot of offers of scholarship money, a frustrating situation to be in.
Iowa was able to offer a full ride and when the decision came down to the Hawkeyes and Purdue, his relationship with Woody proved to be the deciding factor.
It’s been an investment that’s paid huge dividends. Mallett has been an All-American each of the past two seasons and likely will once again this season. He’s headed to the NCAA Indoor Championships this weekend in College Station, Texas.
“He’s coachable, he wants to listen,” longtime assistant coach John Raffensperger said. “He was good when he came in here, but he was a bit raw and just needed some refinement.”
A title, however, has been elusive. He’s finished sixth and third the past two years, respectively, in the 60-meter hurdles at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships.
The outdoor version of the event — the 110-meter hurdles — is where his heart truly lies, however.
“(Outside) I can really open up and get into a rhythm better,” Mallett said. “Indoor, things are so fast paced and almost rushed.”
His highest finish at the outdoor national championship in the 110 hurdles was fifth in 2015 and it’s something he’s dedicated this season toward improving upon.
It’s especially critical for him to show continued improvement at this juncture in his career. He’s going to have to hunt for sponsors after he finishes at Iowa (he can’t sign any deals until after he graduates) and Woody feels there’s a good chance for Mallett to make some money after he finishes, something other Hawkeye track and field athletes have been able to do.
“I have hopes to go pro and be an Olympian one day,” Mallett said. “I think that’s always been in the back of my head since I’ve got here.”
Mallett’s certainly in the right hands. Woody was able to turn pro in the late 1990s and early 2000s after winning a national championship at Northern Iowa in 1997.
Once Woody felt it was time to be done competing for money and sponsorships, it didn’t take him long to start coaching.
Mallett has similar plans.
“I would like to stay in the sport one way or another,” Mallett said. “Whether it’s the business side or the coaching side or the athlete side.”
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