My Carolina Experience: O'Neal Wanliss
By Zoya Johnson, GoHeels.com
O'Neal Wanliss is a UNC track star whose legacy is already impacting the next potential generation of Tar Heels. What makes his story even more interesting is the fact that he did not start out with dreams focused on the track but on the soccer field. Before Wanliss' junior year in high school his main focus was actually soccer. The running joke in his family is that he only ran track "part time" until he realized his potential.
Wanliss made the decision to focus on track when he had the opportunity to go to nationals for both sports. Based on how well he had been progressing that year he decided to go to nationals for track and the rest is, as they say history.
Wanliss not only ran an amazing time in the 800 meters that year at nationals, he broke the Georgia state record for the event. North Carolina assistant coach Davian Clarke had been pursuing the rising star for a while, but after the display of athleticism that the young Wanliss showed at nationals the calls from other schools came pouring in. Despite the new interest Wanliss chose to stick with North Carolina because it had three things he felt would be integral to his continued success at the college level and beyond.
During his freshman year, everything seemed to fall into place. He was figuring out how to succeed in the classroom and on the track at high levels, his training was going well, and he completely trusted his coach. That year Wanliss achieved personal bests during his indoor and outdoor seasons, he was a member of the ACC indoor 4x400 championship team, and qualified with that team for outdoor nationals.
In 2013, the UNC track and field program saw big changes as its Hall of Fame head coach of 27 years, Dennis Craddock, retired. Replacing him was coach Harlis Meaders who brought with him an almost completely new coaching staff. This meant Clarke and many of the other coaches who had recruited most of the student athletes on the track team would no longer be a part of the program. Even though Meaders immediately started implementing a vision of pride and progress that all of his athletes embraced for Wanliss and many of the athletes the transition was like starting from scratch.
"One of the main reasons I came here was because of Clarke and the training partners I had coming to Carolina in the 400 meters. My sophomore year I had a new coach and I was switched to running the 800 primarily so I no longer had the same training partners. That experience taught me that I cannot do things on my own and I have to trust the process. I'm still learning that now."
"My passion has grown a lot more through learning to deal with the changes in our program. It makes my vision and my goals that much clearer. I am not sure if this is based on Chapel Hill or just life but I see my time here as a learning experience. When I got here I wanted to be all about athletics and that did not fly. The way life is you have to be well rounded and that is something Carolina makes you realize."
While Wanliss develops as a track standout, he has continued making strides towards his future after college thanks in part to the fact that athletics was not the only thing Carolina had to offer. In high school, O'Neal Wanliss founded a non-profit organization called S.P.I.K.E.S. 4 Tykes which brought lightly used spikes to underprivileged athletes in several different parishes of Jamaica. Since its founding in 2011, Wanliss' vision for the program has evolved from a shoe drive that has received support from across the nation into what he hopes will become more of a mentorship program.
"As an aspiring social entrepreneur, I find inspiration and drive in making a positive impact on my family, my community and my country. I wanted to do more than just collect and give shoes. I wanted more interaction and to share my passion with like-minded people. I'm thinking of having semi-annual workshops as well as mentorship with professional and collegiate athletes who would talk about being a scholarship athlete at the next level and teach various skills. I am writing a curriculum for that program as we speak."
"I have found that networking is key and it is cool to see how genuine the people here are. When you network here you are genuinely connecting with them, it is not just on a professional level. These are lifelong friendships and those are things I picked up here at Chapel Hill that I think are unique to the Chapel Hill experience. I don't think you can get that anywhere else."
His ability to network with both administrators and professors will allow his program to take its next steps. Wanliss also mentioned how a class he is currently taking is aiding in helping him understand how to write the program's new curriculum.
Going into his red-shirt junior year, Wanliss has discovered the true meaning of a scholar-athlete is not someone who is perfect in all facets but someone who can rise above his challenges and seeks to be better despite them.
"When I was younger they would paint the scholar athlete as that athlete that was getting straight A's and was also the best on the field. That intimidated me. Coming in, I felt like if I was going to be the best athlete then I was giving 100 percent, and skating by in the classroom because I'm smart enough to do that. I feel like I could have done that anywhere else but not here. Carolina kicked my butt and it makes it that much sweeter to know that I made it here."
"Carolina is Carolina and at the end of the day we are one of the top universities in the nation and I know that the work I did will help me move forward. I am so proud to be a Tar Heel and I'm proud to wear this UNC across my chest and say that I am a student-athlete."
In Wanliss' words; here at Carolina we are a family and you have to take advantage of that because the people here genuinely care about not only your success but your well-being. The road my not be easy but as Wanliss can attest, in the end it will be well worth the struggle.