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Icing On the Cake

June 9, 2011

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

How often do you hear athletes at a big event stress that they’re not just happy to be there?

It’s almost as if admitting that isn’t enough, that it’s a sign of weakness or lack of desire.

Anyone who feels that way is more than welcome to talk with senior 400-meter hurdler Leslie Njoku and freshman triple-jumper Julienne McKee.

Both are in Des Moines, Iowa, to compete in their first NCAA Championships, being held at Drake Stadium, and neither is ashamed to admit they are happy to be there. They joined senior and NCAA Championship regular, pole vaulter Joanna Wright.

There’s something to be said for appreciating the unique opportunity to compete among the nation’s elite, as getting there is certainly is not a given.

Njoku competed for three years at Georgia Tech before finally earning her chance to run in the NCAA Championships. The senior from Jersey City, N.J., had already competed when she spoke with Sting Daily on Thursday morning. She finished 14th overall, running a 57.14, setting a P.R. (personal record) AND a school-record for the second straight weekend — she’d done both in the East Regionals a week earlier, running 57.38.

“This was a great reward. It’s a great honor and I’m really happy to be here,” she said. “It couldn’t have come at a better time, my last season running outdoors. I set a new record and I’m second-team All-American. This was, I guess, my best season yet, since I’ve been at Tech.”

The NCAA Championships was a nice capper on a superb senior season, during which she improved her time in every race.

“This season was incredible for me. I was able to set a P.R. pretty much every meet,” she said. “Every race that I ran I focused on a different aspect of my race. At the beginning of the season it was more trying to finish strong and maintain my speed. Toward the end I had to work on getting out a little bit harder and maintaining from there.”

Njoku was as proud of her teammates, especially McKee, who is scheduled to compete today, starting at 5:35 CT.

“I’m really proud of her for making it this far, especially as a freshman,” she said. “Joanna is competing [today, beginning around 5:25 CT] and I hope she does well and sets another school record. I’ll be here watching and cheering my teammates on.”

For McKee, getting to the NCAA Championships is satisfying, although she feels her experience won’t quite be complete.

“I wanted to qualify for both long jump and triple jump but that didn’t really go as planned [in the East Regionals],” she said. “I wanted to jump better in triple jump but that didn’t go as planned either. But after practicing last week, I feel better about jumping [today].”

She’s eager to take in the experience of her first NCAA Championships but the freshman from Marietta, Ga., is not going in with a “deer-in-the-headlights” look.

“I don’t really feel intimidated by them because I know I made it here,” she said. “My coach [Assistant Coach Nat Page] always says that my conference is the best in jumping. So I don’t really feel intimidated by them.

“It’s exciting, it’s new,” she added. “Probably on Friday I’ll get a little nervous. I’m just thinking that it’s going to be another meet so I’m not trying to get too freaked out about it. I remind myself that I can be just as good as [the competition].”

McKee earned her place in today’s competition by taking off for 12.56 meters in the East Regionals, good for 12th place. Her season-best took place at the ACC Championships, where she traveled 12.89 meters.

The NCAA Championships mark the end of Njoku’s outdoor career but she believes they will provide momentum heading into the 2011 indoor season — she has one season of eligibility remaining, having redshirted one season and is on track to graduate in May of 2012, with a degree in Industrial Engineering.

Njoku also plans to continue racing on the world-class level, as in less than two weeks, she’ll head off to Calabar, Nigeria, to compete for a spot with the Nigerian National Team (she has dual-citizenship, as both of her parents were born in Nigeria).

“I’d rather be doing this than anything else,” she said.

McKee also will hit the ground running after the NCAAs.

“I’m going to have practice two times a week,” she said. “I’m going to be focusing on my running technique because [Coach Page] wants me to start being really focused in the running aspect of track and field. So next year I’ll probably be doing the 200 and the 100 and I’ll also be doing long jump and triple jump.”

“I just hope that I can be here another three years,” she added.

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