Last summer at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., Sha’Keela Saunders, now a redshirt senior at Kentucky, missed her Olympic dream in the long jump by that much.
But more than four years ago, when she arrived on campus with an ACL tear suffered two months earlier, Saunders felt as far away from her athletic aspirations as she could possibly be.
Coach Edrick Floreal, who’d inherited Saunders when he took over the UK track and field program in fall 2012, didn’t let her give up hope.
“I had the surgery, and he was promising I’d be this big NCAA star, and I was like, well, teach me how to walk first,” Saunders said Tuesday as she and the rest of the UK team prepared for this weekend’s Kentucky Invitational indoor meet at Nutter Field House. “But as time went on, he’s become like a father figure, and he really knows what he’s talking about. He’s a genius at track and field, and I trust everything he says now.”
That hasn’t always been the case, according to Floreal. He has questioned her commitment at times as the distractions and pressures of being a college kid have stunted her results in his eyes.
“I think there are going to be some challenges ahead, but what she’s doing now is off the Richter scale: training, diet, even schoolwork, she’s darn near straight-A’s,” Floreal said.
For fellow senior Nick Anderson, the indoor season is a chance to work on some of his weaknesses and improve on the form that won him a silver medal in the 110-meter hurdles at last year’s NCAA outdoor championships.
“My workouts have been going really well,” Anderson said. “I feel this is probably the strongest and fastest I’ve been since I’ve been here at Kentucky.”
Anderson, who was part of Floreal’s first recruiting class, did not have blazing high school times to earn Floreal’s interest initially. But a persistent father got the UK coach to take a look at the Orlando, Fla., native at a meet in Tampa. Floreal liked the potential.
“He’s developed physically, he’s developed technically. We just have some mental stuff to get over,” Floreal said.
To knock hundredths of a second off your times takes a complete combination of the physical, technical and mental aspects of the run. Anderson has shown he can put that together. Now, Floreal wants to see it every meet.
“Nick is the most wonderful young man you’d ever want to be around. Very calm, but as a hurdler, an aggressive event where you’re hitting 42-inch hurdles at full speed, you need to have a little bit more of that, I don’t know what you want to call it, ‘anger’ or ‘moxie,’ he’s just not that kind of person,” Floreal said. “I need him to go over a 42-inch hurdle at full speed and take the head of the competition off their neck, and we’re working our way to that.”
The Kentucky Invitational this week features 22 teams from schools in and around Kentucky, including Ohio State, Louisville and Cincinnati, and serves as a tune-up for the following week’s Rod McCravy Memorial, which will feature 14 of the top programs in the country.
The UK women’s team comes in ranked No. 8 in the country, led by reigning NCAA 100-meter hurdle champion Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, an Olympic semifinalist for Puerto Rico last year.
Saunders will also play a major role in the team’s success. In December, she set a personal best indoor mark and won the long jump at the Hoosier Open. Her jump of 6.73 meters was the best mark ever recorded by a female NCAA athlete that early in the indoor season.
“After the Olympic trials, I kind of knew what it took to jump that far,” Saunders said. “In December, I wasn’t too confident that it would be that far, but I was confident that it would be a good opener. When I saw the jump, obviously, I was surprised and kind of excited for the season.”
Saunders is a four-time NCAA medalist — earning three silvers and one bronze — and is an eight-time All-America athlete in the long jump, the triple jump and the 4-by-400 relay.
Instead of heading home to Chesapeake, Va., for the holidays, Saunders continued to train over the break at UK. She has set her sights on medaling not just at the NCAAs, but also at the World Championships this year.
“What I figured out is that everything that coach says is true,” Saunders said. “Seriously, the sleep, the diet, studying film, every single thing. I did everything that he said and even that wasn’t enough. I missed it by about an inch. So, I just decided I’m going to do everything coach says this year and see how that works out for me. It’s turned out well, so far.”
Featuring: 22 teams from around the region, including Louisville, Ohio State, Cincinnati and Xavier
When: Events begin Friday at 4 p.m. and Saturday at 9 a.m.
Rod McCravy Memorial
Featuring: 14 of the top programs in the country, including USC, Penn State, Illinois and Baylor
When: Events begin Jan. 20