FEATURE: Florida Hurdler Denzel Villaman’s Journey On & Off the Track

With the NCAA outdoor championships on the horizon, senior hurdler Denzel Villaman has the same goals as any other athlete on coach Mike Holloway’s Gators Track and Field Team: always keep improving and compete for an NCAA Championship. 

Even though his collegiate career is coming to an end, Villaman’s life and aspirations extend far beyond the track as he hopes to represent his country on the national stage and to inspire others through motivational speaking and the sharing of his faith.

Background

Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Villaman moved to the United States in 2011. He described his life in the D.R. as a humbling experience, as he didn’t have access to many of the opportunities that he has experienced in the states.

Growing up in the Dominican Republic did give Villaman strong family ties. He credits his parents for teaching him humility, kindness, and to not take things in life for granted.

“For me, family means everything,” he said. “Everything that I do now is to honor what my parents and every single one of my family members have done to get me to this point.”

High School

The world of track and field was virtually nonexistent for Villaman until he attended high school in the states and watched Felix Sanchez win the 400-meter hurdles gold for the D.R. at the London Olympics in 2012. He was inspired by Sanchez’s race and the emotion he showed when placing a picture of his grandma on the track.

One day in the cafeteria, Villaman saw a poster in Spanish with a picture of Sanchez promoting a meeting for the track team. He attended the meeting, only to find out that everyone there spoke only English.

“I just remember from that meeting the only words that I was able to understand were practice, next week, come,” he said. And so a track career was born.

In December of 2012, Villaman won his first two medals as a freshman in the 600 meter and the 4×2 relay. From that point on, track became his passion.

 

College Career

By his senior year of high school, Villaman had become a solid runner but still wasn’t highly recruited. After missing the fall of what would have been his freshman year, he finally signed at Western Kentucky University.

During his year and a half at WKU, Villaman found increased success on the track. He won 2 Conference USA gold medals in 2018, for the 4×400 and his specialty, the 400-meter hurdles.

https://twitter.com/wkutrackfield/status/997144719078711296

However, Villaman needed more scholarship money, and after talking to the coaches at WKU, he entered the transfer portal. He reached out to multiple schools in the SEC and other conferences, but the last school on his list was the University of Florida.

Coming to Florida

“Ever since I started to get good at track, Florida became my dream school,” he said. ” So, I was a little bit hesitant about emailing, you know, because of what it means to be a Gator and the long history of success. I was like, can I contribute to that?”

Villaman literally dropped the phone in shock when he got the call from Coach Holloway. He then got in touch with Adrain Mann, sprints and hurdles coach at the University of Florida to complete the transfer process.

“He actually reminded me of myself,” said Coach Mann, “You know 25 years ago. About the same height, same size, at the same event.”

For Villaman, competing at the University of Florida was a dream come true. He credits the coaching staff and his teammates for creating an environment where he could not only take huge strides as an athlete but also grow as a person.

Personal Journey

during the Pepsi Florida Relays on Friday, April 2, 2021 at Percy Beard Track at James G. Pressly Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. / UAA Communications photo by Jordan McKendrick
Faith

One of the biggest areas of growth for Villaman during his time at Florida was in his faith, something he considers central to the person that he is. Despite growing up Catholic, he considered faith to be a minor factor for much of his life.

That all changed in the fall of 2019 when he attended a bible study with Grant Holloway and other members of the team. He spent much of his time listening and learning from others and, in April of 2020, he attended a service that changed his life.

“That’s when I really started to devote myself into my journey, and pretty much centralizing everything that I do around having God you know, at the center of my life.”

Motivational Speaking

As Villaman grew in his faith, he also grew as a motivational speaker, reconnecting with something that he had enjoyed in middle and high school.

“I always enjoy talking to people and sharing quotes, motivational videos and whatnot,” he said. “It’s always, you know, been a part of me. I’ve always cared for people.”

However, he had been hesitant to share his inspiration publicly, preferring one-on-one conversations to getting in front of the camera and hearing himself speak. In October of 2020, he finally decided to break out of his comfort zone, posting his first video on his Instagram page.

“I gave it a shot, and then it felt great,” he said. “It felt great actually speaking. Well, not directly to people we know, communicating verbally, instead of you know just typing it out.”

Villaman continued to speak on his Instagram page, sharing verses, sermons, and advice that inspired him. What he didn’t expect is how much it would impact those around him. As he continued on his journey, people would reach out to him to tell him how much his messages had affected their lives.

 

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A post shared by Denzel Villaman (@zel_villaman)

“Going out on social media and actively talking about your religion can be kind of frightening,” said Brandee Johnson, fellow hurdler and close friend to Villaman. “But to see him do it so consistently and willingly is just like really inspirational. I think that’s the most powerful thing is he’s doing it for him. But in the process, he’s helping others.”

 

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A post shared by Denzel Villaman (@zel_villaman)

As a Teammate

during the SEC Indoor Track and Field Championships on Friday, February 26, 2021 at Randal Tyson Track Center in Fayetteville, Ark. / UAA Communications photo by Alex de la Osa

Villaman’s coaches describe him as a strong leader to his teammates both on and off the track.

“He’s a hard worker and never fades away from the workout for [the 400m hurdles], that’s always a bit known, you know, worldwide as one of the hardest events in track and field,” said Coach Mann. “He’s a leader by his actions. I think he’s a big role model for the younger athletes from his work ethic.”

As a senior, Villaman has truly embraced a leadership role, supporting the younger athletes, being vocal, and leading the chants at the end of meets. But his presence and support off the track have also had an incredible impact on those around him.

Denzel Villaman and Brandee Johnson. via Instagram @zel_villaman

“Me and Denzel have gone through a lot,” said Johnson. “He was always there for me, whether it was just to listen, or if it was to like go get food and talk about what’s going on. We were just there for each other.”

“He has that demeanor about him that, he could be that that neutral guy that could be a good listener when somebody needs to vent or just talk about some personal issues that they may be going through off the track,” said Coach Mann.

The Future

During his time at the University of Florida, Villaman has truly adapted to the philosophies of Gators Track and Field. He will leave as an All-American and with a degree from Family, Youth and Community Sciences program at UF.

“For him to come here and buy-in and believe and trust in our program, and to walk across the stage and graduate, I mean there’s not too much more you can ask for,” said Coach Mann.

In the near future, Villaman hopes to be an NCAA Champion. He hopes to go pro, to be an Olympian, and to represent the Dominican Republic on the track. Professionally, he has aspirations as a family therapist.

But one thing that Villaman has taken from his journey and his faith is the metaphorical “ripping up” of his own list of goals to let God take control of his life.

“I presented Him all my goals or my desires or my wants, and if everything aligns to His purpose. Then we’re good. If it doesn’t, we’re great, because I know that he or whatever else he has for me, much greater than whatever I had planned.”

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