If The 'Shoes' Fit
Feb. 7, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Illinois men's head track and field coach Wayne Angel says his coaching philosophy is simple. He first looks for the best talent within the state of Illinois and then he expands nationally. It is only then that if he doesn't find what he is looking for, he will recruit internationally. That was the case with junior Gakologelwang Lesiba Masheto.
If you are wondering, and we know you are, the answers are Botswana and 26. The latter being the number of letters in his given name, which is nearly as long as his trip from his native Botswana - a landlocked country directly north of South Africa.
What will also help is the fact that the talented Illinois track star grew up going by the nickname "Shoes", which we will be more than happy to use in writing this story. An avid soccer player as a kid, his coach saw similarities between him and John Moshoeu, a famous South African soccer standout who also went by Shoes. So his coach began calling his talented youngster Shoes, and the name has stuck with him ever since.
When looking for a middle-distance star, Angel became intrigued to learn more about the island nation of Mauritius, which sits in the Indian Ocean more than 500 miles east of Madagascar. It served as the site of the 2006 African Championships, where Shoes and his teammates earned the bronze medal in the 4x400-meter relay for Botswana. Angel was at the event and immediately hit it off with Shoes and his coach Adam Letham, who has also served as a foster parent to Shoes since the age of 17. His parents, who cared for Shoes and his five siblings, were tragically killed in a car accident.
"If it hadn't been for Adam, I would have never gotten Shoes," Angel said. "He trusted me enough and saw what I have done with half and quarter-milers and he wanted to get Shoes out of the country."
At the time, Shoes, a native of Muan, Botswana, was competing for the University of Botswana, where he placed first in the 400 meters and second in the 200 meters at the 2006 African University Games and was also a 400-meter semifinalist in the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
Needless to say, Shoes arrival to Champaign in January 2007 was that of culture shock. He says he had only seen snow on the television and never in public, while Angel remembers his new recruit getting off the plane with only the seasonal summer clothing that he had back home.
The Fighting Illini coach says there was another major difference between Botswana and Champaign in addition to the climate, culture and food.
"Well, you don't have the wild animals around," Angel quipped.
Since his arrival, Shoes has had to adjust to running indoors as one can understand him never having a reason to back home.
"The learning curve with running indoors didn't take him long," Angel said. "He got knocked around a little, but once he figured it out, he was full steam ahead. He wasn't afraid of any of the competitors and the big names he was running against didn't bother him. He just wanted to be the best he could be."
Although a tad cliche, one could say that following his arrival to Illinois, Shoes was off and running.
During the 2007 indoor meet, Shoes won regular-season titles in the 400, 600 and 800 meters, as well as the 4x400-meter relay. In that same event, he took fourth at the Big Ten Championships and fifth in the distance medley relay.
However, once he stepped into the blocks for his individual events, the outcome was a completely different result.
Shoes sprinted to the 600-meter conference title in a school-record time of 1:16.28. At the NCAA Championships, he earned All-America honors in the 400 meters by placing fifth with another school-record time of 46.14. During the outdoor meet, Shoes captured Big Ten titles in the 400 meters (45.54) and 4x400-meter relay (3:07.32) and was again tabbed All-America following a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Championships in the 400 meters (45.51).
Looking back, Shoes' performance in the 600-meter indoor event was one of his favorites.
"I wasn't expecting that in a short period of time," he said. "Last year in the Big Ten Conference it was hard to win the championship because we had great runners. It was really tough for me to go there and win the 600. That 600 time was the fastest time last year."
Perhaps that title was most fitting seeing that Shoes had only been in the States for three or four weeks and running indoors was something he was not used to. It certainly was a performance that pleased Angel.
"His impact on the team was immediate," Angel said. "He came here in January and a month later he's one of the fastest 600-meter runners in the world."
As intense as Shoes can be on the track, Angel says he is equally shy and quiet off the track. But that doesn't necessarily mean he keeps to himself. In fact, Shoes admits that one of the things he has most liked about coming to the States has been the interaction with people.
"I like the friendships and the way people treat each other," he said.
At first he admits he was homesick, which is certainly understandable, but says he is over that now. Over the holidays he was able to return to Botswana and spend time with his family and Adam. Shoes also put in a great deal of training with his coach while he was home with hopes of earning a spot on the Botswana Olympic team.
This past January his dreams came true. One year after he ventured to Illinois with hopes of an education and an athletic career, his accomplishments in just a short time have earned him a trip back home.
And to Beijing.
"It has always been my dream to run at the Olympics wearing the colors of my native country, and now it is coming true," Shoes said at the time. "I have been working extremely hard to achieve this goal, and I feel like my dedication to running is paying dividends. To qualify for the Olympics means a lot to me and the University of Illinois track and field program.
So far this season, Shoes has captured individual titles in the 400 and 600 meters and became the first Illini to provisionally qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships with a 400-meter time of 47.07 last week in Nebraska. It is the second-fastest 400-meter time to date. He also anchored the school's 4x400-meter relay team to another NCAA provisional time of 3:11.06, which is the top time in the conference this season.
For his efforts, Shoes was named the Big Ten's Indoor Track Athlete of the Week on Wednesday.
With the talent he has displayed in the past year, it is hard to believe it will be the last award or honor he ever receives.
Angel calls his long-distance prospect a lethal weapon on the track and feels that in the heart of Shoes' hearts, he wants to be an NCAA champion this year.
And in his heart is where you will most likely find the answer seeing that Shoes is the not the most vocal when it comes to his goals.
"I don't like to talk a lot," he said. "I just run my race and my running does my talking for me."
Given his recent success, that amounts to a mouthful.
Now Shoes is focused on being a handful for other Big Ten, NCAA and Olympic runners throughout the rest of his career.
For someone who was looked at first as an international recruit, it is clear that Shoes has already made an impact nationally and found a home locally in state of Illinois.
Making him just the recruit Angel was looking for.