Just seven months ago, the hurdler with the fastest time in the world this season wasn't even hurdling at all. Cordell Tinch was selling the latest versions of cell phones and watches at a store in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
A sales pitch by friends lured him back to the track. They convinced him to join them at Pittsburg State in southeast Kansas.
In no time — he started in January — Tinch rebooted his career. He won the 110-meter hurdles, long jump and high jump at the NCAA Division II championships in May.
This weekend, he will compete in the hurdles and long jump at the U.S. track and field championships in Eugene, Oregon, for a spot at worlds. He very well could be the one to give two-time reigning world champion Grant Holloway a run for his hurdles title next month in Hungary.
“Every time I think that I’ve hit the top where I’m like, ‘OK, nothing else can surprise me,’ something else happens,” Tinch said.
Like that race on June 23 in Arkansas, when he ran a world-leading time of 12.96 seconds. Or when he won his NCAA crown in a wind-aided time of 12.87 seconds (the world record is 12.80 set by Aries Merritt in 2012).
That time, even wind-aided, gained Tinch notice — by none other than Holloway, who sent him a congratulatory note. By the track community, too, who made his name a popular search.
“It's remarkable what this young man has done in such a short amount of time,” Pittsburg State coach Kyle Rutledge said. “We knew Cordell had some very unique talents. We just didn’t see it coming this fast and at this rate.”
In Eugene, his biggest fan will get to see him compete in person for the first time this season.
Mom will be loud, too.
"I’m going to hear the phrase, “Let’s go, son,” and I’m going to know that’s my mother screaming at the top of her lungs,” Tinch said. ”Hearing that in the stadium is only going to fuel me that much more.”
The road for his mom, Elizabeth, has been filled with hurdles, too. She was 15 when she was pregnant with Tinch. She briefly put her son in foster care with his godparents so she could complete Job Corps, a program that provides education and vocational training. When she brought him back, she made ends meet for the family by working at a nursing home and at a department store.
On a Zoom call from his dorm room at Pitt State, Tinch listened as his mom recounted her story. Listened as she spoke of how proud she was.
“I love every moment, every second of everything that’s going on,” she said. “He's here for a purpose.”
“Are you crying?” she asked.
“No, no. There’s a fly in here,” he responded.
In addition to track, Tinch was a standout football player at Bay Port High School in Green Bay. His plan was to do both sports at the University of Minnesota. The workload proved exhausting, so he dropped football. And when his track coach left for the University of Kansas, Tinch eventually followed.
At Kansas, he became the 2019 Big 12 outdoor 110 hurdles champion. He even earned a lane that year at nationals, but he said a transfer issue surfaced and kept him out of the race.
It was a situation that followed him into the next season with the Jayhawks. That, coupled later with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, led to a downward spiral which affected his performance in the classroom. He ended up going to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, but that didn’t work out, either.
So he put hurdles on the backburner.
Tinch did a little bit of everything while at home, from installing cable to working at a paper factory to selling cell phones.
“There were many, many days and many conversations of, ‘Is this really what you want to be doing?’” recounted Tinch, who recently turned pro. “The answer was always, ‘No.’ But it was where I was and there was nothing I could do about it.”
Then, the phone calls. Some of his teammates from Coffeyville were going to Pittsburg State, a Division II powerhouse program.
Join them, they coaxed.
“I assumed it was a joke,” said Tinch, who started chatting with Pittsburg State last August. “But the seed was planted.”
Treyvon Ferguson, his teammate at Kansas and Coffeyville, called from the school in January and made one last plea. He needed a roommate. He needed his track buddy.
Soon after, Tinch showed up on campus.
“Went from working straight to track,” Tinch said.
He was the talk of the team, with the ones who had seen him run before hyping him up. So when he made his debut for the Gorillas in February, there were plenty of eyes focused on him. He lived up to the buildup that day, too, setting school indoor records in both the long jump and 60-meter hurdles.
“It reignited that fire within me," Tinch said. “I just realized this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m not supposed to be selling cell-phone plans and brand new iPhone 14s and watches. I’m supposed to be here — on a track somewhere.”