HELENA — Lee Walburn has goals and aspirations he didn’t have four years ago. That’s because, as a senior in high school being recruited by Carroll track and field, his sights weren’t necessarily set on winning national championships and racking up All-America honors as a collegiate multi competing in the heptathlon and decathlon.
Walburn’s knack was hurdling in high school, and at first, he believed that would continue to be his focus at Carroll. Saints head coach Harry Clark, a former decathlete himself, saw something in Walburn, now a junior at Carroll, after being turned on to him by Willie Roche, Whitefish High School track coach and former Carroll student-athlete.
Walburn’s pure athleticism began shining almost immediately. In his first-ever collegiate heptathlon, he qualified for the NAIA National Championship Meet, and in his second-ever, Walburn placed tenth at nationals as a freshman with a score of 4,638 points.
“When he got here on his recruiting trip, he was about 6-foot-2, 175-180 pounds and now he’s 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5. He really grew into it,” Clark said. “He grew into it as we were doing the different events. He was just like raw clay. This is a kid that’s a really good athlete who’s never thrown a javelin or a discus [prior to college]. Because he’s such a good athlete, you can put him in the right positions. He has enough [skill] being an athlete that can just plug it in and go.”
With that as his collegiate starting point, Walburn began to flourish. He placed fourth at nationals in the heptathlon as a sophomore (4,951 points) and won the NAIA National Championship in the decathlon at the 2021 outdoor nationals, breaking 7,000 points in the process in what was his first collegiate outdoor track and field season.
This spring, Walburn was less than 60 points away from earning national championship hardware in the heptathlon, finishing second to Eastern Oregon’s TJ Davis. Walburn did earn his third-straight indoor All-America honor with a score that approached 5,400 points.
“It gave me a lot of confidence for outdoor this year because last year we took fourth in indoor with a score of like 4,900 and we increased it almost 400 points,” Walburn said. “If we do that in the decathlon, then that puts us – your hopes and dreams are the [Olympic] Trials, maybe – so if we can increase last year’s score, and get 7,500 or 7,600, then there might be a chance.”
The idea of chasing an Olympic qualifying standard in the decathlon is a relatively new aspiration for Walburn. Then again, about three years ago, the idea of pole vaulting and throwing a javelin competitively was also a fresh concept and that came into focus quickly.
“Everything is just so new and exciting, it’s like, well why not have a goal to dream big and work hard for?” Walburn said. “Something like, whether it happens or not, it’s something to strive for and become a better version of yourself trying to obtain.”
Chasing results which would make that possible is one of the biggest reasons why Walburn said he enjoys track. Everything being on his shoulders and having to prove everything in a competitive setting brings enjoyment for Walburn. The idea that if he wants to improve a number, then he alone can impact that with his effort and work ethic, and that everything an individual athlete gets out of track is all on them also acts as something of a motivating factor for Walburn.
Still, though, he enjoys a certain team atmosphere that comes with running relays. One of his biggest goals this season is helping qualify two Carroll relay teams for nationals.
“Believing in yourself that you can do something and then trying to obtain it. That’s probably one of the coolest feelings…There are just these marks that it’s such a cool challenge that you’re – you believe you can do it, but can you do it? It’s just that cool battle with yourself,” Walburn said. “I think that’s probably the most exciting and fun thing about track.”
Walburn said he doesn’t get bored with the daily grind and routine it takes to hone his craft. Sometimes, he said, it does become difficult to keep practicing the same thing over and over or to fight the elements for practice time. Walburn understands hard and dedicated work leads to success and one of his biggest fears is showing up to a meet unprepared for a challenge.
“You just have to remind yourself when times get really hard and you don’t want to do it – you just know you have to get through it. It’s like, man, when I’m in that moment, when you’re at nationals, you wanna be at a place where you’ve put in all the work and you can just perform. That helps you get through those hard days. To get those special moments, you have to do all the stuff when it’s cold or snowing or raining.”
That work, and the subsequent results, has led to what could be considered the final piece to unlocking an athlete’s potential: confidence.
“He’s at the point now where he has confidence in everything he does,” Clark said. “Before it was like, ‘yeah, but I don’t really know how to do this.’ But now, in every single event, it’s like, ‘I’m going to kick everybody’s ass in this event.’ That’s been kind of a big thing for him.”
Walburn is now able to compete in what could be considered his weaker or less experienced events – javelin, pole vault, throws – independent from the heptathlon and decathlon and hold his own against good competition.
That is a far cry from where Walburn was in his earliest days attempting to pole vault.
“His freshman year, we were at indoor nationals doing the heptathlon. It was his first year vaulting. Vaulting is always the hardest one, I think, for people to learn,” Clark said. “His step was way out and he took off anyway. Got down to the pit, held on to the pole and then let go of the pole and the pole shot up in the air and it actually landed in the stands. I had to stand there and go, ‘yeah that’s my guy.’ That was at 11-foot-6 and now he’s almost at 15 feet.”
Walburn’s performance in the decathlon last year has opened up possibilities that weren’t available prior. With a nearly 7,100-point performance at his first outdoor nationals, the question of where his ceiling is arises naturally.
Walburn plans an NAIA National Championship qualifying attempt at the SAC Relays in California in about two weeks. He needs a top-16 mark to qualify and is aiming for a minimum of 7,400 points (roughly a 300-point increase from last year’s nationals).
Hitting that number again at nationals later this year would then be on the lower-end of Walburn’s goal, with an ultimate score of 7,600 or 7,700 points in the 10-event decathlon being closer to ideal.
“This year is that tipping point, that breaking point,” Clark said. “He did really good with indoor. This year he got second and he should’ve won it. Outdoor, he won it last year, and this year he’s gonna win it bigger because we’re gonna try to score 7,500 points…
“He kinda broke that magic barrier of 7,000 for a decathlete [last year]. He broke that and now we’re gonna add on to that with his throws and stuff, because he’s just doing everything a lot better. We’re excited about what he can score. To get in that 7,500 range is a really good goal this year.”
If that goal is met, it could help unlock the next step in Walburn’s journey toward the Olympics. His decathlon scores over the next two seasons could determine where Walburn ends his collegiate career.
He and Clark have already discussed the possibility of Walburn transferring to an NCAA Division I program for his final year of eligibility should he be presented with the right opportunity. Clark, as a former standout athlete at the University of Houston, has the connections to make that happen.
“I think it’s trying to do another year here and see what the score is this year and what we can get next year. Then try to go to a bigger school after that,” Walburn said. “I think [Clark] wants to help me do that…I’ve kinda got some schools that would be dream schools. So if I could get a score that allows me to get a decent scholarship and go somewhere big and compete against some even more amazing athletes [that] would be my ultimate goal.”
Clark, who still holds Montana State’s program record in the decathlon with a 7,633-point performance in 1989 and was an All-American at Houston, said Walburn’s ‘want to’ and drive remind him a lot of himself in college.
Just like Walburn, the Olympics were on Clark’s radar as a collegiate athlete. He didn’t quite get there, but Clark’s records now serve as something of a roadmap for Walburn.
“I want to be like him,” Walburn said, pointing to Clark. “He’s helped me a ton with figuring things out and being patient. I’ve looked up all his old scores and I want to beat them. He’s been a huge influence on my passion and love for track.”
It’s that aforementioned ‘want to’ that has helped Walburn reach this point in his athletic career and placed him on the cusp of some remarkable achievements.
Don’t expect Walburn to be satisfied with whatever score he gets later this month in California or, if he qualifies, the one he puts on the board at nationals. He plans to stay hungry under the pressure of being a national champion and having people gunning for him.
All to chase a goal.
“He has that upper echelon goal,” Clark said. “He’s not just like, ‘I’m cool down here.’ It’s like, ‘I wanna be big.’ That’s one thing that pushes him every day. That’s why he comes here with a great attitude every day. He’s the same every day…It’s one of those deals where he knows what he’s doing now. That’s just a big difference.”
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