Devin Quinn: The fastest man in Big Ten history

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By Mike Pearson

Move over Jesse Owens, Willie Williams and Andrew Riley. Make room for a new guy in your exclusive neighborhood of all-time fastest runners in Big Ten history.

On day one of the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, it took Illinois sprinter Devin Quinn just 10.01 seconds to distinguish himself as the fastest man in Big Ten history. Not only did he break Riley’s University of Illinois record for 100 meters, Quinn also clocked the fastest 100m time in Big Ten history, edging Riley’s conference record of 10.02 set in 2012.

“When I saw 10.01 on the board I was shocked,” said the senior from Punta Gorda, Florida afterwards. But I knew I was going to go out there and leave everything on the track. I did exactly that and surpassed every expectation I had for myself. One piece of my race that I thought gave me the edge today was my reaction to the starter and my acceleration. After about twenty meters, I saw where I was in the race and I knew it was going to be something special.” 

  » Watch Quinn in Friday Night’s NCAA 100m Final (8:22 CT on ESPN)

Longtime Fighting Illini track observer David Woods, now a reporter for the Indianapolis Star, called Quinn’s effort “a textbook race.”

“He had a great start, lifted at the right time, transitioned smoothly into his drive phase, finished well, and leaned at the right time,” Woods said. “It cannot be overstated that his was a major achievement.”

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of Quinn’s incredible 100-meter run was a school-record setting effort of 20.31 in the 200, achieved less than an hour after his 100-meter race.

“Ending the day with a new lifetime best is not a bad ending for day one of the NCAA finals,” Quinn said. “It sucks to barely miss finals (in the 200m), but overall I’m excited about my future running the 200 and what I will run with better execution.”

What’s equally extraordinary about Quinn, who’ll celebrate his 23rd birthday on Saturday, is that he flew well below the radar as a prep recruit.

“I remember the day (Illini) Coach (Adrian) Wheatley called me up my senior year (2015) at Charlotte High School,” Quinn recalled. “It was close to May at that point and no one was really offering me a scholarship. I was like ‘Oh, geez, what am I going to do?’ Then, the day before I won the Florida Relays in the 100, I got a call from Coach. He said ‘I’ve been talking to your coach for a couple of hours. I really like what I’m hearing about you. Would you be interested in coming up for a visit?’  And I was like “Heck, yeah … bring me up!’ So, I got on campus. The first thing I noticed was the diversity. There were a lot of things going on. It was in full bloom, the campus was beautiful. Walking through campus, you could just see the history that had happened there.”

Illini coach Mike Turk says that it was a good match for both Quinn and UI’s track program.

“At the time, we had just won the Big Ten and we were looking for a replacement for (100 meters titlist) Brandon Stryganek,” Turk said. “Devin fit both athletically and from a cultural and character standpoint. For a Big Ten team to show some belief in Devin meant a lot to him. It was just a match made in heaven for us.”

True to form, the former soccer player who didn’t fully participate in track and field until his freshman year of high school, blossomed throughout his Illini career. As a freshman in 2015-16, Quinn placed fourth indoors at 60 meters and sixth outdoors in the 100 at the Big Ten Championship. As a sophomore, he finished fifth at both 60 and 200 meters indoors, then third outdoors in the 100 as well as anchoring his 4 x 100 relay team to victory. In 2018, Quinn placed fifth at the Big Ten meet indoors in the 60 and 200, then fourth in the 100 and 200 outdoors. Nationally, that season, he earned second-team All-America credentials in the 200 and as a relay team member.

Quinn won the 2019 Big Ten 100m title in May before running the fastest 100m in Big Ten history (10.01) at the NCAA semifinals on June 5. 

“Devin has been very focused and driven throughout his time with us,” Turk said.  “Maturity-wise, he’s a different person than when he came to the University four years ago. Devin really listens to us and had paid attention to our advice. We’ve always known that he could be really special.”

Quinn’s senior season in 2019 has been simply spectacular. Prior to this week’s NCAA performance, one of his most significant personal achievements was winning the Big Ten’s 100-meter title on May 12 in Iowa City.

“I’ve been the fastest seed for the last three years, but something always got in the way,” Quinn said. “This year, the conditions were right, my mind was right, and my body was right. I wasn’t worried this year about winning or not.”

Despite his individual successes, Quinn admits that his greatest personal satisfaction comes as a member of the Illini’s 4 x 100 relay team.

“Honestly, it’s more exciting for me when a teammate does something that they weren’t expected to do,” Quinn says. “It makes it fun. When my teammates accomplish something—it doesn’t have to be a Big Ten win or even scoring points—if they come home with a PR (personal record), it’s a lot more satisfying than me winning.”

On Wednesday in Austin, the Illini unit of sophomore Jason Shannon, freshman Declan Rustay, senior Joe Haight and Quinn toured the 400 yards in a season-best time of 39.01, the fourth-fastest clocking in program history. Though the foursome missed qualifying for Friday’s final by just one spot and .01 seconds, they earned All-America honors for the second straight season.

Quinn has been the fastest kid on the block for as long as he can remember.

“I’m not going to lie,” he says, “I’ve been a fast-twitch person since elementary school. Starting sports at a very young age, it helped push me to be more athletic.”

He credits his parents, Adam and Teresa Quinn, and his grandparents for their loyal support throughout his career.

“I never got a car until after I graduated and I didn’t have a cellphone until my junior year of high school, so I’d always have to rely on my parents or grandparents to give me a ride to the track,” Devin said.

Quinn also gives a shout-out to his older sister, Amber, a sprinter herself who introduced her brother to track and field.

“Amber was very quick, very fast, but didn’t progress as much as I did because of some hamstring issues. There was a sliver of time when she was faster than me, so I never wanted to race her during that period,” Devin confided.

And what about his Twitter handle: @White_Lightninq?

“A local reporter in Charlotte County, Florida tagged me with the nickname,” Quinn said. “He thought it would provoke some interest. I like it and really appreciate it. Whether it’s negative or positive, it motivates people to react.”

A graduate in recreation, sport and tourism and a grad student at Illinois this coming Fall, Quinn says he’s not ready to move on from track just yet.

“I’m trying to keep my dream alive,” he said. “I’m a very growth-oriented person. The reason I run track and do what I do is because I want to connect with people. I want to bring people together. I want to make social interaction happen between people. The awesome thing is I don’t have to be a track athlete to do that. I’ve already started coaching a little bit and so I eventually want to explore coaching at the collegiate level. I want to help people grow and have those interactions. I think it’s really important to help people and change lives.”

Spoken like a true champion.

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