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Utah TikTok star and sprinter Hunter Woodhall presses pause for Paralympics

The Syracuse native is taking small break from social media to focus on 400-meter final in Tokyo

(Eugene Hoshiko | AP) United States' Hunter Woodhall, third from right, competes during the men's 100m T64 heats in the 2020 Paralympics at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021.

Hunter Woodhall is Utah’s fastest man on two blades, but recently his pace has slowed.

Not his pace on the track. Woodhall, a Syracuse native, is currently in Tokyo competing in the Paralympics with his best event, the 400 meters, coming up Friday morning. After taking the bronze medal at that distance at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro as a 17-year-old, he returns as a strong medal favorite.

No, it’s his posting pace that has lagged.

Since his success in Rio, Woodhall has developed a social media empire. He has 2.7 million followers on Tik Tok, another 295,000 on Instagram and 22,900 on Twitter who seek out updates multiple times per week, if not per day. Every week he posts videos on the YouTube channel he shares with his girlfriend, Olympic long jumper Tara Davis.

Lately, though, those updates have been fewer and farther between. And for that, he’s not sorry. Social media may pay the bills, but while he’s in Tokyo, he has a job to do.

“The reason you go is to focus on your race and get a medal,” he told The Tribune prior to qualifying for the Paralympics.

“Your biggest focus is to run your race and do your job,” he added. “You try to be selfish as much as you can.”

Woodhall hasn’t posted about the Athletes Village, even though he arrived there a week ago. He has posted only once about Davis. And just twice he’s posted about the actual Games: at the Aug. 24 opening ceremony and on Monday, when he finished eighth in the T64 100m final.

“I’m not sure if there are any more 100s in my future,” wrote Woodhall, who has rarely raced that distance, “but I’m happy with the outcome. But even happier to get back to my actual event.”

Woodhall is choosing competition over compensation in Tokyo (though he will get a several-thousand-dollar payout from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee if he medals).

Just nine months ago, he chose the opposite.

Woodhall in 2017 became the first double amputee to receive an NCAA Division I scholarship when he chose to run for Arkansas out of Syracuse High. He competed for three years for the Razorbacks, including anchoring their winning 4x400 relay team at the 2020 Southeastern Conference indoor championships.

During that time, though, fans were flocking to Woodhall’s social media accounts. His lighthearted and slightly goofy persona had a magnetic quality that even caught the eye of Ellen DeGeneres, who offered him $20,000 to help cover his expenses as he trained for the 2020 Paralympics. If he’d been able to capitalize on sponsorship deals stemming from his online popularity, he wouldn’t have needed it. A New York Times article said he could have been making as much as $800,000.

But according to NCAA rules at the time, he couldn’t keep any of that money and keep racing for the Razorbacks. So in January, despite still having a year of eligibility, he chose to go pro.

“I got so tired of waiting, tired of their hypocrisy,” he said of the NCAA in an interview with the Times. “It was not worth staying to chase a national title so they could use my name and my story to promote themselves. I simply had enough.”

Less than two months later, the United States Supreme Court ruled the NCAA violated antitrust law by putting tight restrictions on how much college athletes can earn. Then, in late June, the NCAA adopted a policy that allows its athletes to prosper from the use of their name, likeness and image.

Woodhall doesn’t seem upset that the change happened when it did. During the interim, he started a sweatshirt company with two Arkansas friends that he said is valued at $15 million and has created a budding real estate portfolio.

And, now that it’s possible to have it all, he said he may return to complete his college athletic career at Arkansas.

“I’m super excited now since these rules have been put in place and NCAA athletes are getting the opportunity to use their brand and monetize their names,” Woodhall told Forbes. “I would hope that the sacrifice that I made helped move that needle a little bit.”

Woodhall has plenty of options after the Paralympics. One thing he definitely plans to do is keep posting.

“It’s just been a really great opportunity to [share my life] in a very organic way and make some really amazing connections and relationships,” he said. “And I do plan on continuing to do it into the future and kind of see where it goes because social media and the landscape is always changing. So I kind of got to stay on top of that.”

But through Friday morning, at least, expect him to be keeping pretty quiet.

How to watch

Men’s T62 400m final

Friday, 4:33 a.m., NBC Sports app

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