UA track

Maksims Sincukovs recorded a 400-hurdles time of 50.35 seconds last year — the world’s 12th-fastest time for runners under age 19.

Maksims Sincukovs traveled 5,689 miles from Liepaja, Latvia, to the University of Arizona campus.

By comparison, 400 meters was a breeze.

Last June, Sincukovs became the lone freshman to compete in the men’s 400-meter hurdles final at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Sincukovs wound up placing seventh overall, earning first-team All-American honors with a time of 50.63 seconds.

Sincukovs, now a sophomore, will lead the Wildcats into the two-day Willie Williams Invitational, which begins Friday afternoon at Drachman Stadium. Field events begin at 2 p.m., with the running events beginning two hours later.

UA coach Fred Harvey has been thrilled with Sincukovs’ development since he arrived on campus more than a year ago. Sincukovs’ mindset is a little bit different, however, and it has more to do with his limited understanding of championship stages than it does with his level of personal expectations.

“Back home, it wasn’t a big deal,” Sincukovs said. “If you won the National Championship in Latvia, it’s almost like nothing compared to the U.S.”

Sincukovs started turning heads on the track when he was 12 years old, but wasn’t aware of the world of track outside Latvia until one of his coaches suggested that he consider a move to the United States.

Sincukovs’ coach in Latvia had gotten to know Harvey while studying in the United States; he managed to connect the budding track star and world-class hurdles coach.

At first, “I wasn’t really sure about it all,” Sincukovs said. “We started chatting and I could tell Coach Harvey was really interested in me.”

Harvey’s interest and rapport with top Canadian and American hurdlers Sage Watson and Georganne Moline proved to be enough to accelerate Sincukovs’ path to Tucson. Ultimately, Sincukovs said he was ready for a new challenge on the track.

“I’m already the best in my country,” he said.

Sincukovs arrived on campus in summer 2017 speaking very rough English. He didn’t start learning the language until his final year of high school, and at that point he had plenty of catching up to do.

With Harvey’s help, and the advice of another Latvian on the UA roster — senior Gustavs Kehris — Sincukovs is beginning to settle into his new home. The success on the track helps.

“I like the school, I like my teammates, and the people here are really supportive,” Sincukovs said. “It’s been really fun. I’m getting the opportunity to travel around the U.S. and see different states, different people and different weather conditions.”

After missing the indoor season as a freshman due to complications from pneumonia, Sincukovs wasted no time making headlines. Sincukovs has become a staple in the men’s 4x400 relay team, and has also notched top team times in the 600 and 800 runs. All three events are secondary to what Sincukovs calls his primary focus — the 400 hurdles. That’s “the event I got a scholarship for, and it’s the event I have the most accomplishments in,” Sincukovs said.

Sincukovs hopes to crush his personal record, 50.35 seconds, set in August 2017 in Finland.

“I’m trying to run a better time than I did last year,” he said. “Coach (Harvey) thinks I’m really capable of this, this year because I’m a lot stronger than I was last year.”

There’s an added incentive, too: the Olympics.

Sincukovs can qualify for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo by meeting specific time standards. Latvia selects its athletes based off qualifying marks rather than head-to-head competition, and Sincukovs can qualify by registering a fast-enough time during Arizona’s outdoor season.

In the meantime, Sincukovs will have to treat each race like it’s on a major stage.

“I want to be fearless ... so that I can fight pain through the finish line,” he said.

Now, there’s just 10 hurdles and 400 meters standing in his way.