By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
The NCAA Indoor Track and Field championships were to have been staged March 13-14 at the Albuquerque Convention Center, at an altitude of 5,312 feet above sea level, but the event was – as nearly all have been – canceled. Let’s pretend life hasn’t been altered. Here’s a look at the ramp-up for Georgia Tech’s two female student-athletes who qualified for NCAAs, distance runner Nicole Fegans, a junior, and senior triple jumper Bria Matthews.
Nicole Fegans ran fast before, and Bria Matthews triple-jumped far many times, but they flat out rocked at the ACC Championships to get ready for the NCAA Indoor Track & Field championships. You don’t take conference titles and set Georgia Tech records without ripping it up.
Each crafted stories of resurgence.
Nicole muddled with her mind over her first two seasons as a collegian. Remarkably accomplished as a high school athlete at Landmark Christian in Douglasville, she battled doubt at the next level. Until this year, nobody might have predicted Fegans would be one of the nation’s best in the 3000-meter run.
Bria won ACC titles in the indoor long jump and triple jump as a freshman in 2016 and captured gold in the outdoor triple jump as well. Then, she didn’t jump for the next two years because of a stress fracture in her launch leg. She almost left the sport that she took up in the footsteps of her older sister at Forest Park High and began crafting a plan to remove herself from competition. Then, she changed her launch leg, started jumping again, and, obviously, has jumped, well, quite well.
Now, they’re getting ready to go for it in high desert of New Mexico, where the NCAA will stage its national championship Friday and Saturday, which is to say they’ve come a long way.
“I did have some moments where I thought about not jumping anymore. At the beginning of last season, I told myself that if I didn’t compete well, I wouldn’t continue,” Matthews said. “I wanted to study abroad, in France. I was going to do that.”
Fegans said, “I would throw a pity party for myself when I wouldn’t run well, and you can’t do that in life. If you constantly throw a pity party in life when you have a bad day, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
These ladies are going places.
In one spring season, Fegans set the Georgia Tech record in the mile twice, first with a time of 4:43.28 at the Bob Pollock Invitational at Clemson in January, and then broke her mark with a time of 4:41.55 at the Charlie Thomas Invitational at Texas A&M on Feb. 8. She broke the school record in the 3000 with a time of 9:16.88 at the Iowa State Classic in Feb., and crushed that in winning the ACC title in 9:06.92 at Notre Dame on Feb. 29.
Pretty good season.
Last season, she was kind of a mess, all up in her head. The problems grew out of cross-country workouts in the fall.
“It was just learning like I can’t just sit here and mope about how I had a bad day, “ Fegans said. “I just remember there were certain workouts we would do. There was this grass loop, and I would be like, ‘I don’t like this loop.’ “
The loop was at Piedmont Park, not but a mile from campus. It is good cross-country training, as Tech has virtually no property on campus that trains for cross country.
“We do periodically a grass loop at Piedmont,” said track head coach Alan Drosky. “It’s hilly, and the grass tends to be thick and it’s wet when we’re there in the morning. It’s a grind, perfect for cross country. A couple years ago she had a couple tough workouts, and she was dealing with some injury at that time. To her, it was that she hated that loop. A big hurdle for her this past fall was going to that loop and actually having good workouts.
“I remember her saying that was by far the best workout I’ve ever had.”
Fegans had a solid cross-country season last fall, when she was Tech’s top finisher in all five meets.
That propelled her into the winter indoor track season.
“Her physical ability has always been there. She continues to improve physically, but the biggest jump has been in confidence,” Drosky said. “Any coach in any sport will tell you how important that confidence is. A person with that confidence that they can compete at that level is a completely different athlete.”
Matthews won the ACC indoor championships as a freshman in both the long jump, triple jump and won the outdoor title in the triple while finishing third in the long jump.
Then, her leg cracked.
She competed only in a few hurdles events over the 2017 and ’18 seasons, and nearly left the sport altogether.
Under the watchful eye of jumping/hurdles coach Nat Page, who has mentored multiple Olympians and was to be an assistant U.S. Olympic coach before the Tokyo Games were postponed, Matthews rebuilt herself, and won the 2019 ACC Indoor and Outdoor titles in the triple jump.
She’s improved since then.
Her first triple at the ACC meet, of 13.33 meters, was good enough to win, yet she put down a 13.42 (44 feet, one half inch) on her sixth and final attempt to win the title by more than a foot and a half over North Carolina State’s Trentorria Green. That was the ninth-best triple in the nation leading into the NCAAs.
“I definitely think there’s room for improvement,” she said. “I can get stronger. I see myself jumping further.”
That will have to happen later on the Olympic stage. NCAA athletics are over for this school year, and Matthews is about to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering and, she hopes, move into a career in robotics. Matthews finishes her Georgia Tech career with six ACC track and field gold medals, and no chance to go for a seventh and eight (outdoors).
Fegans has another year of eligibility and looks to grow into her senior season.
If her race in the ACC championship is a sign, and it should be, the future is bright.
That 9:06.92 was a masterpiece, 10 seconds faster than her personal best. She smoked Duke’s Michaela Reinhart (9:13.13). Fegans turned in the 14th-best time of the NCAA season in the 3000 meters, and it’s worth noting that she was the only one of 16 qualifiers to turn in her time at a conference championship meet. Some tracks are faster than others, like the University of Washington’s Dempsey Indoor Center. Located nearly at sea level with a springy surface, the Husky Classic on Feb. 4 produced half of the NCAA’s 16 qualifiers.
Fegans didn’t need no stinking fast track to win.
“Conference championships tend to be a little bit tactical as opposed to when you’re trying to get a qualifying time you’re going to go to a meet up in Boston, or you’re going to go to a meet out in Seattle, Wash., where they have tracks that are set up to produce really fast times with pace setters,” Drosky said. “At the conference meet, there was nobody pacing Nicole. She was probably at about a 9:15 pace halfway through. She took the lead and ran faster. To run that kind of time in that kind of a race kind of tells you that she’s ready for even more than that.
“With about a lap to go, a competitor from Duke moved to her outside shoulder, and Nicole could kind of feel her there and she put seven seconds on her. I think she’s ready to compete at a higher level.”