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Top HS talent flocks to Nike Indoors

20 March 2008

By Carl Little

Early in her high school career, Jackie Coward used her physical talent to overwhelm the competition in her home state of Tennessee. But whenever she would compete on the national stage, the pressure of racing against other elite athletes exposed cracks in her mental preparation.

As a freshman in 2005, she failed to qualify for the semifinals in the hurdles at the Nike Indoor Nationals, widely considered to be the top high school indoor track and field meet in the United States. At another marquee meet in her sophomore year, Coward broke concentration while trying to clear a hurdle and tumbled to the track.

"I was a mental case," said Coward, a senior at West High School in Knoxville. "I got caught up in all the hype and competition, and I choked."

Things were much different at this year's Nike Indoors on March 15-16 in Landover, Md. This time around, Coward was unflappable, exploding out of the blocks and winning the 60-meter hurdles in 8.32 seconds. She made the eight-hour drive back to Knoxville with her second straight hurdles title as well as the two fastest times ever run at the meet.

Coward's journey to national prominence mirrors that of many other elite track and field athletes. Meets such as the Nike Indoors have forced Coward to correct the bad habits she was able to get away with locally while elevating her into the national spotlight.

"It's been me growing up, basically," said Coward, who set the national high school record of 8.16 seconds in the 60-meter hurdles in February. "My attitude now is 'Alright, if I'm going to lose, they've got to come get me.'"

Coward's natural gifts, newfound mental toughness and willingness to get better exemplify the type of competitor the Nike Indoors looks to invite. At the 2004 Summer Olympics, nearly 60 percent of the U.S. team had competed at Nike Indoors or Nike Outdoor Nationals meet.

"If they're going to become Olympians, they're disciplined besides being talented," meet co-director Jim Spear said.

Jeremy Wariner, who won Olympic gold in Athens in the 400 and in the 4x400 relay, finished third in the 400 meters at the 2002 meet Nike Indoor Nationals. Sanya Richards, a 400-meter silver medalist at the 2005 world championships, won the girl's 200 meters in a national high school record at the outdoor meet, then known as the adidas Outdoor Track and Field Classic.

"The Nike Indoor Nationals and similar meets were monumental in my development as a young athlete and I see it having the same effect on our youth today," Richards said by e-mail. "Having big meets on every level prepares athletes for what's to come next. Some of my most fond memories, other than winning races and breaking records, are traveling all over the country with my family. My entire family would travel to New York City and to Raleigh and all those places to cheer me on. It was like a mini family reunion. Those memories are very dear to me."

The Nike Indoors were first staged in 1984 in Princeton, New Jersey, before making stops in six other cities across the Northeast and the Midwest. Last weekend's meet marked the end of its eight-year run in Maryland, as it will return to the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Boston next year.

The move from a flat track in Landover to a banked track in Boston has meet organizers optimistic that the Nike Indoors will continue to attract top talent from across the country.

Luke Puskedra, whose winning two-mile time of 8:49.58 on Sunday was the meet's second-fastest ever, said part of what attracted him to Nike Indoor Nationals was its history.

"The guys here definitely bring it, but it's even better to be a part of the tradition with Alan Webb and those guys," said Puskedra, a senior at Judges Memorial Catholic in Salt Lake City. Webb, the American record holder in the outdoor mile, owns indoor meet records in the two-mile (8:45.19) and mile (4:07.87).

Ryann Krais, a senior at Methacton High in Pennsylvania who captured her second straight pentathlon title, voiced a similar sentiment. "I love the atmosphere," she said. "It's my fourth year coming, so it's like a tradition now."

If becoming part of the meet's legacy isn't enough to attract top-flight athletes, perhaps the compensation they might receive is. Nike gives athletes in need grants that help defray the costs of the trip.

LaShawn Merritt, who won gold in the 4x400 relay and silver in the 400 meters at the 2007 world outdoor championships, signed autographs in the infield Sunday for enthusiastic fans while watching the boys' 400-meter dash, an event he sponsored. He said that neither his parents nor his school, Virginia's Wilson High, could afford to send him to Nike Indoor Nationals in 2004 when he won the 400 meters. Eager to get him there, Nike subsidized his car trip to and hotel stay in Maryland. He won the 200 meters title 10 minutes after running the 400.

Nike Indoor Nationals isn't just the place to be for high school student-athletes. Mellanee Welty, the assistant men's and women's coach at Florida, arrived just in time for Sunday's opening ceremonies after traveling through the night from the NCAA Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., the day before.

"This is the only time that we can see the best high school athletes all together and not have to go to individual meets to see them," a bleary-eyed Welty said.

Norm Ogilvie, the head coach at Duke University, had an easier road to the Nike Indoors. He made the four-hour drive up from Durham Saturday night so that he could observe several recruits on Sunday.

"There's some of the best talent in the nation here," Ogilvie said. "They're anxious to prove to you that you made a good decision, and we're anxious to see that."

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