Malik Paul's journey to the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships is one of hardship, sacrifice,
determination, faith, and a mother's love. The South Carolina graduate student is
headed to Eugene, Ore., next week for the first time after qualifying at the NCAA
Regional last week. Not bad for a former walk-on who struggled to find enough to eat
a couple of years earlier.
"My mother (Bernadette) is my rock," Paul said. "She is a single mother. She works at Walmart. She had to raise three boys by herself. My two older brothers are 13 and 11 years older than me, so they got out of the house a little bit early. Then it just became me and her. It wasn't easy. She pushed me to transfer here.
"I came here with no money. That was a challenge. I didn't have a meal plan either, so my mom and I were skimping along, just trying to make ends meet, doing whatever I could to at least try to get a meal in sometime."
Paul graduated from West Ashley High School in Charleston where he competed in football and track. He started throwing the discus as a junior and originally got into track and field as a way to stay in shape for football. It turned out to be a solid choice as he won a region championship in his event.
"I initially started doing high jumps and hurdles, and I kind of stunk," Paul said with a laugh. "So, then they said, take the disc and throw it. That's how it all started.
"It's the part of competing with yourself that I like. Once you step inside the ring, nothing else really matters except for what you do. There are no outside forces. There is nothing that can try to stop you other than yourself. It's all on what you do."
Paul started his collegiate career at USC Beaufort where he twice qualified for the NAIA Championships and was the Sun Conference's field MVP in 2018.
"My original plan was to go to USC Beaufort for two years and then transfer out," Paul said. "My freshman year, all I could throw was maybe 140 feet with the college discus, and then out of nowhere, I threw 160. That was a big mark, so I started thinking I could do this pretty well."
"You don't have to go through anything by yourself. There is always someone that you can talk to."
While he did enjoy a partial scholarship at USC Beaufort, Paul felt like he needed
and wanted more, so he decided to transfer.
"My old friend (and high school teammate), Darrell Singleton (2017-2020) went here, and I started hitting him up because I started seeing the throws space that they had here, and I saw what (Josh) Awotunde (2014-2018) was doing, and I saw what (graduate student teammate) Eric (Favors) was doing."
Paul transferred to South Carolina after two years and joined the Gamecocks as a walk-on. He qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Regional in his first season with the Gamecocks in 2019, but life wasn't easy.
"I knew it was going to be hard to leave somewhere that I was getting (scholarship) money and go somewhere without any money and try to make ends meet and having (Bernadette's) help pay with my rent and everything," Paul said. "She didn't want me to take a job. She wanted me to focus on track, and she said she would help do as much as she could to provide for me and make sure I would one day be able to get on scholarship.
"It was definitely harder getting into competitions because there were so many people who were extremely better than me. I was a big fish coming out of a little pond. That was the rough part about it."
His mother continued to encourage him through the tough times. Eventually the hard work and sacrifices began to pay off.
"I ended up getting a full scholarship for my fourth semester here in the spring of 2020," Paul said. "To be honest, that was before I had really done anything to be able to earn a scholarship like that."
Paul improved greatly and during the 2020 indoor season, he won his event in three meets and finished fourth at the SEC Indoor Championships in the Weight Throw. After seeing the outdoor season canceled last year due to the pandemic, he suffered a setback with a concussion last fall that affected him physically and mentally during the indoor season this year.
"It's been my mother's prayers, and I've been talking to a therapist, too," Paul said of his recovery and is an advocate for seeking professional help for mental health. "I have a mentor that I talk to, too. Just not being alone and talking to people, it helps to not put yourself in the corner.
"If you're of faith, talk to God, and also talk to someone else, too. I believe that God put people in your life for a reason. You're not meant to go through anything by yourself. You don't have to go through anything by yourself. There is always someone that you can talk to."
He continued to work hard, and he was once again rewarded by qualifying for the NCAA Outdoor Regional in Jacksonville, Fla., where he punched his ticket to nationals last week.
"The first thing that went through my head was that it finally happened! My mother is a big believer in Christ and a big believer in God. She would tell me on multiple days that God has told her that Malik has a victory, and that he is going to win. We've both been through a lot in the last couple of years.
"Just to achieve that and have her there," Paul continued and then paused to think about his mom. "She got off of work at around 4 o'clock in the morning, and she and a couple of friends drove five hours just to come and see me. That made it all the more special that she made that huge sacrifice, and I was able to do it."
As he prepares for nationals, Paul won't just be happy to be there, as he won't be thinking only about himself on the big stage.
"I frequently think about her," Paul said. "Sometimes when I get angry and I get discouraged and it feels like I'm not doing well, then I think about her. I think about what she has done for me, and I think about all the sacrifices that she made for me to be able to do this and that fires me right back up. That's one of the leading inspirations to bring me to this point.
"I'm going to make it a great experience because the first battle was making it. Now, I'm going out there to win."
The NCAA Outdoor Championships will be held June 9-12.