By now, you’ve probably seen the clip. If you haven’t, Michigan freshman Ziyah Holman takes the baton for the final leg of the 4×400 relay at Saturday’s Simmons-Harvey Invitational from 25 meters behind her closest competitor. Within seconds, she passes an Ohio State runner. A lap later — mere steps from the finish line — she uses a final burst to bury Indiana too, winning the race for Michigan with a 51.79 second split.
“51 seconds of thrill” is how Anthony Belber, her high school coach at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C. describes it. On social media, hundreds of thousands feel the same way. As of Tuesday afternoon, the video has 454,000 views on Facebook, 204,000 on Twitter and 47,000 on Instagram.
What hasn’t made the social media rounds is Holman’s 600-meter race an hour and a half earlier. There’s less drama to that one because she won by four seconds with a time of 1:29.27, topping a pair of Ohio State seniors. “It was a stadium record, a meet record and an NCAA lead (for the season),” Holman said by phone Tuesday, with the nonchalance that accompanies expectation.
After all, she’s used to this. She’s been an anchor in the 4×400 since she was a freshman in high school. The only time she can remember not being in that position was at the 2019 Pan American U20 Championships when her team set an under-20 world record. So when she took the baton Saturday afternoon, she just reminded herself to do what she was taught.
“Just go test them, honestly,” Holman said. “Just go get them, see how far you can get. As the race keeps going, you see yourself getting closer. Like oh my god, I’m actually getting closer. Why would I try so hard and not try to win?”
When she did, it was more familiar than anything. “All the time in high school, honestly,” Holman said when asked if she’s ever experienced a similar comeback. “That was my thing.”
Five hundred miles away, those were the memories that raced to Belber’s mind as he watched on a live stream. As Holman took the baton, he turned to his daughters and said, “If this were high school, she would’ve caught those girls, but this is too big of a gap for college.” 51.79 seconds later, Holman proved it wasn’t.
“I know how strong she is, but it even blew away my expectations for what kind of a time she would be running this time of year,” Belber said. “She made the college athletes around her look like they were just high schoolers.”
For Holman, the race itself wasn’t as stunning as the social media attention it garnered. For 47 months, every four years, track is a sport that often blends into the background. She was a three-time Gatorade Player of the Year in high school, but that doesn’t bring the same fame as it does in football and basketball. So when Saturday’s video went viral, it brought Holman a level of attention she’s never experienced before.
“I’ve gotten so many messages, it’s not even funny,” Holman said. “I feel so bad because I’m still replying — trying to reply — to everyone, but honestly it’s pretty impossible. I’m still replying to stuff from Saturday.”
Since Saturday, she estimated she’s gotten 500 direct messages from family, friends and fans across Instagram and Twitter, with about 100 left to respond to. It’s not all positive, though. Holman said she’s gotten one or two racist messages, which she brushes off with an admirable absence of second thought.
“I can’t sit here cursing people if I wanted to, because that’s not done with class,” Holman said. More than anything, that’s the lasting difference in her life from Saturday morning. With one stunning, come-from-behind leg of a 4×400, she’s immediately been thrust into the public eye.
“It’s real, people are watching me now,” she added. “Anything that you do has to be done with class, honestly, because you have so many people at your back.”
If everything goes according to plan, Holman will have even more people at her back this summer. Before COVID-19 postponed the 2020 Olympics to this summer, she had received an invite to Olympic trials for the 400 meters. She’ll almost certainly be invited again, this time with a year of college training and experience under her belt.
“It gave me some more time and more confidence, honestly,” Holman said. “I don’t know what I would’ve done last year.”
That’s the other impact of Saturday’s race. In 2016, the eighth and final American to qualify for the 400 meters posted a 51.80 in trials. If Holman can repeat Saturday’s performance, she’ll put herself in strong contention to do the same. And while athletes generally post faster times with running starts in relays, Holman did so on an indoor track — which has more turns — and with tired legs from her previous accolades that day.
If she does qualify for the Olympics, she’ll have reached her ultimate goal. But for now, Saturday’s meet — the first of her college career — is a pretty good place to start.
“I had no idea what was gonna happen,” Holman said. “I just came out there to compete. I have goals, but I definitely didn’t expect a 51.7 split. That was crazy. I couldn’t believe that.”
On social media, neither could hundreds of thousands of new fans.