Aaliyah Butler leads UGA contingent to Paris Games

Aaliyah Butler wins a heat women's 400-meter run during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials Friday, June 21, 2024, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Aaliyah Butler wins a heat women's 400-meter run during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials Friday, June 21, 2024, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

ATHENS — Eventually, Aaliyah Butler will focus on earning medals. For now, it’s hard for the University of Georgia sprinter to get past wearing the Team USA uniform and attending opening ceremonies for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The sophomore from Fort Lauderdale became the first member of UGA’s current track team to punch a ticket to Paris when she finished second in the 400-meter dash at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, on Sunday. Butler clocked 49.71 seconds, which topped her school record of 49.79 from this year’s SEC Championships. Professionals Kendall Ellis (49.46) and Alexis Holmes (49.71) finished first and third, respectively, to complete Team USA’s 400-meter squad.

“It means, like, everything,” Butler said during a video conference call with reporters Monday. “I’ve dreamed of that since I was a little kid and starting track. Going to the Olympics has always been a big deal. Plus, it’s in Paris and I always wanted to go to Paris.”

Butler’s first name is pronounced “uh-LEE-uh.” Joining her in the 2024 Summer Games is former Bulldog Keturah Orji (2015-18), who earned a spot on the Team USA roster after finishing second in the triple jump. It will be the third Olympics for Orji, who was fourth in the triple jump at the 2016 Games and seventh at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo.

They hope eventually to be joined in Paris by UGA’s record-setting sprinter, Christopher Morales Williams, who is a favorite to make the Canadian team, and Cyprus high jumper Elena Kulichenko.

Making the U.S. Olympic team has long been a goal for Butler, who broke the Florida state 400-meter record as a freshman at Miami Northwestern High School. Monday it became a reality as she endured three hours of processing that culminated with the issuing of her uniform.

Now her focus turns to earning a medal.

“I know I can do it,” she said. “I’ve always dreamed that far. I’ve never put a limit on myself. I’ve always tell myself, ‘if you work hard you can always get what you want.’”

Butler answered the call of Georgia coach Caryl Smith Gilbert to bolster the Bulldogs’ sprints program. Fellow sophomore sprinters Kaila Jackson and Autumn Wilson are also All-Americans early in their careers.

“I kind of knew about Coach Caryl before she recruited me at Georgia because of her team at USC,” Butler said. “When she went to Georgia, that was closer to home. And going there to visit, she told me she was going to have me ready to do big things.”

Both parties have come through on that plan. Butler earned All-America honors in the 4x400-meter relay at the NCAA Outdoor Championships this year. She was a favorite to finish top three or four at NCAAs in the individual 400 meters. However, a minor injury in the semifinal round forced her to shut down early in the race. She finished 14th.

Monday, she said that injury turned out to be more mental than physical. “It was, like, a hamstring, but it really wasn’t an injury and just kind of got in my head and stuff,” Butler said.

Before Sunday’s school-record run, Butler set a school record in the 400 at the SEC Championships. She finished fourth. Butler was fourth at the 2024 NCAA Indoor Championships with the third-best time in school history.

Besides competing and winning medals, there are other things Butler is looking forward to experiencing in Paris. “The food, the atmosphere, seeing historic buildings, everything,” she said.