STARKVILLE - To the casual eye, it likely looked like just a normal training session.
It was just this past Wednesday in Tokyo. Former Mississippi State athletes Marco Arop and Brandon McBride were both working out, preparing for the 800m event in this year's Olympic games. As the two Team Canada members continued to get ready for their upcoming races, they of course also found the time for some good old chit-chat; nothing out of the ordinary at all for friends and teammates to do.
"(MSU head track and field coach Chris Woods) was around too," McBride later said over the phone. "We all had really good conversations."
No matter how standard this scene looked, there was much more to it than met the eye. Here were two young men in Arop and McBride who are striving to be the best in the world at what they do. At the moment, they're essentially on equal footing in that quest. Yet it wasn't always that way.
To hear Arop tell it, you'd have thought he'd seen something otherworldly.
Arop was still in high school in his hometown of Edmonton, Alberta. Olympic trials were right there, basically in his backyard. During the event, Arop got the chance to watch the older McBride run for the first time ever. And Arop had never witnessed anything like it.
"Seeing his stride, it was almost like, 'I can't believe this is real,'" Arop recalled. "This is what a world-class runner looks like."
The two didn't have a relationship at the time, although McBride was already a Bulldog and Arop would eventually be making his own way to Starkville. Still, McBride immediately became a huge influence on Arop's life.
"I'd sort of use him as motivation," Arop said. "For the longest time, I'd be training at home. If I had a really hard practice session, my teammates would be like, 'Oh, what do you think Brandon McBride would do?' Just little things like that to get in my head. It would just motivate me."
McBride didn't know any of this was going on. He had no idea of the impact he'd made. All McBride knew was that, as his own Mississippi State career was nearing its end, the Bulldogs were eyeing Arop.
"Being from Canada, all Canadians know other good Canadians," McBride said. "I knew he was up and coming. The coaches reached out to me at the time and told me there was a guy in Canada they were recruiting heavily and they thought he'd be really good. I didn't know if he knew me or not, because we're from different provinces in Canada. But I knew of him and knew he was really talented."
The paths would cross soon enough.
Starting to Catch Up
Arop, still in high school, was training and focusing on trying to make his junior national team. His coach at the time was in contact with Woods at MSU. Arop was floored. One, because there was interest in him, and two, because of who'd been wearing that maroon and white already down in Mississippi.
"I was like, 'Wow, I didn't know I was that good,'" Arop remembered. "So I definitely listened and talking to Coach Woods that first time through the phone, it was really cool knowing that the same person that coached Brandon is also interested in me. That meant I was probably on the same path. And whatever Brandon did to be successful, it definitely worked. I didn't see any reason why I shouldn't take the same path."
So Arop finally started catching up, so to speak, with McBride. Now it helps to remember just how good Brandon McBride is at his craft.
McBride is tied for the MSU men's record with nine career All-American selections. He's a two-time NCAA and Southeastern Conference Champion. In recent years, McBride has set the Canadian outdoor record in the 800m and racked up multiple first-place finishes at a variety of top-tier events.
Arop very much wanted to follow in McBride's shoes, so that's what he did. Arop headed to Starkville in 2017. McBride's MSU career had already ended by the time Arop became a Bulldog though, so the two paths still never really crossed.
"I kind of knew coming in [to MSU] I wouldn't get to train with [McBride] just because he's at another level," Arop said. "It was almost like that person, you see him and feel like you're getting closer, but I never got to see him. The closer I got, the further he went."
McBride wouldn't be outrunning Arop for long. It was about a year after Arop had come to State that he competed at the 2018 Athletics Canada Championships. And who was one of his competitors? None other than McBride himself. In that moment, Arop had officially caught McBride. In fact, at least for a day, he passed him. Arop won the Canadian national title in the 800m by 0.27 seconds over McBride.
From Inspiration to Friend
About a month after Arop topped McBride, McBride returned the favor by edging out Arop at the NACAC Championships. McBride and Arop helped Canada finish 1-2 in the 800m at the event. In the years since, the two have run against each other multiple times, swapping who ended up finishing in front of who. In 2019, Arop broke McBride's MSU records in both the indoor and outdoor 800m.
Arop's time had arrived and with bonds built in Canada, as well as in McBride's returns to Starkville, McBride had officially gone from inspiration to friend. As Arop achieved his goals, it allowed McBride to also realize one of his own.
"It's a large reason why I compete in the sport, just to be an inspiration for others," McBride said. "Growing up, I always wanted to look up to athletes, and there were several I could look up to, but none were really around my area. I didn't really have that athlete that was from my country or area or school I could look up to and be like, 'Wow, that's who I aspire to be.' I always just wanted to be that person for someone else."
McBride had little idea of it, but he was precisely that for Arop.
"You never know for sure," McBride said when asked if he knew how highly Arop regarded him. "I try not to assume, but throughout the years, I've just tried to be there for him and give him something that I wish I'd have had. Someone just to get advice from or to be someone that can have certain insights. So I tried to be that person and tried to give him advice so he'll avoid certain mistakes I made in my career that are easy to make."
In a way, McBride's unselfishness towards Arop has now allowed the bond between the two to come full circle.
"He inspires me as well now," McBride said. "We're making each other better and that's what it's all about at the end of the day. We're pushing our limits and seeing how good we can become as individuals."
On the Biggest Stage Together
So now, Arop and McBride stand side by side together in Tokyo. They'll compete in 800m qualifying on July 30. The semifinals are on August 1 and the final is on August 4. The goal for the duo is clear.
"I want to see two Canadians in that Olympic final," Arop said. "I know I have to do my part and I'm sure [McBride] is doing his."
Given the history between Arop and McBride - from Canada, to MSU, to Tokyo - no matter what happens, all this is pretty special for everyone involved. It's at least a bit like a script straight from Hollywood, and it's now playing out and continuing on the biggest stage in the world.
"The ties are so deep now it's almost like you're not competing against each other," McBride said. "You are, but it's like you're not. It's like you're teammates. It's like if he wins, we all win. Or if I win, we all win. I look at it like I have a brother on the track rather than another competitor."