June 4, 2013
By Jon Cooper
Athletes aren’t being trite if they sound overly appreciative about qualifying for national championships.
They really are that appreciative because of the uncertainty about ever getting another chance to compete.
Georgia Tech track and field had four qualifiers fly to Eugene, Ore., on Tuesday for this weekend’s national championships at historic Hayward Field. Three of them — triple jumpers Jhanelle McLeod and Jonathan Gardner and 800-meters runner Brandon Lasater — were going for the first time. Junior triple jumper Julienne McKee was going for the second straight season.
While all four qualifiers were thrilled to be Oregon-bound, McLeod and Gardner may have been a little more so, as they are upperclassmen, who have battled through serious injury to achieve success, yet neither had had a chance to shine on the national stage. They’ll get the chance this weekend.
“I’ve been working toward this for a really long time so it really is like a dream come true,” said McLeod, a senior, who has graduated and will start working on her master’s in public policy at Georgia State in the fall. “From coming in as a freshman, when I was not on the radar at all, to injury, to finally heading to NCAAs, it’s a really big deal for me.”
The senior from Kingston, Jamaica, won the ACC outdoor championship with a jump of 13.02 meters, then, at the NCAA East preliminaries, finished third, jumping 12.98 meters. Qualifying for the NCAA Championships is extra special for McLeod, who had to overcome a hamstring injury that ruined her sophomore season.
“I had to really focus mentally in terms of getting my body back right. I had to focus on getting stronger because coming off injury was really hard. It was hard physically and mentally,” she said. “So it feels really good to know that I didn’t work hard in vain. This has been like a dream season.”
Living the dream with McLeod is McKee, a junior, who is a close friend. McKee went to the championships last season in the triple jump and finished 22nd. She will compete in the triple jump again this season after finishing ninth in NCAA prelims with a jump of 12.74 meters, good for ninth.
“It will feel really good to go there with her and share my first — and last — experience at nationals with her,” said McLeod, her voice breaking up with emotion. “When we found out that we both made it. We both jumped up and down and hugged each other right there on the track. She’s been like, ‘You need to be there with me. I’m tired of going by myself.'”
“She’s worked so hard and I’m going to be so sad after this meet, but I’m really excited to be at this last meet with her,” said McKee. “[Preliminaries] was bittersweet because I wanted to jump better but I was happy that we both made it. Last year it wasn’t like that. So I’m glad she’s with me this year.”
The women’s field could be a loaded one, including countryman Shanieka Thomas from San Diego State and Andrea Geubelle, from Kansas, but McLeod is eager to test herself against it.
“I really look forward to competing with them,” she said. “I’m hoping that all the competition there will get me going, too, so I can step up and exceed the expectations that everyone has for me.”
Gardner will have another shot at the NCAA Championships next year as a senior, but his first trip to Eugene is no less of a dream come true.
“I’ve been trying to get to Oregon since I was a sophomore in high school,” said the Chicago, Ill., native, who mentioned that he looks forward to firing up the crowd with some pre-jump hand claps. “My coach told me how exciting it always is. If you get a clap going the whole stands are clapping. I definitely want to build off that energy, have that to pump me up, to get that adrenaline rush.”
Gardner took home gold in the triple jump at both ACC indoor and outdoor championships then qualified at the East Preliminaries going 15.36 meters, good for 11th. He’ll continue to battle a hamstring issue he’s had throughout Outdoors but admits he’s gotten used to putting mind over matter. He can do it once more for a meet of this magnitude.
“You want to treat it as any other meet. Granted, as any other meet you treat it as the most important meet of the year,” he said. “I’m trying to PR every single meet no matter how big it is. So as far as that goes, yeah, treat it like any other meet. At the same time, you have to realize this is NCAAs. You have to up the competitive drive.'”
While having had a couple of weeks to prepare, the jumpers didn’t modify too many things.
“We’re just refining technique,” said Gardner. “No training is going to get you any faster in the next week or any stronger. Looking back at the film, Regionals was a rough meet and the past few meets I’ve had were pretty rough so we’re looking back at that film and trying to connect the dots and see where we’ve been going wrong. We found out where everything was wrong and how we can fix it.”
“I have to make sure I’m focused on what I have to go out there and do,” said McLeod. “Coach Page always tells us that if go there with a mindset to just jump far then you have the wrong mindset. We have to go there to focus and execute each day like we do in practice. Right now I’m just visualizing my jumps. I’ve been visualizing for a while now.”
McKee said she will offer one piece of advice to her close friend, something she picked up at last year’s Championships.
“Just keep a level head and have fun,” she said. “I know that each National Meet I have I continue to have fun there. So just have fun and compete to the best of your ability.
“You have to be calm in that sense because you’ve already made it to the National level,” she added.
Part of the J-Mac’s having fun will be their breakfast ritual.
“I have to eat pancakes in the morning,” McLeod said, with a laugh. “I have to have black socks and I have to wear my gold jersey when I triple jump. Those three things.”
“I don’t have specific socks that I wear but I say motivating things to myself when I’m on the runway before I go and I eat pancakes,” said McKee. “Pancakes is something we both do. I think it started with me last year. We used to go to McDonald’s just to get their pancakes.”