In 2011, Ann Eason was running for Sayre, a Lexington high school with an enrollment of less than 300 students and no track. Two years later, she will compete for an NCAA championship on the sport's biggest stage in Eugene, Ore.
Eason, a sophomore at Eastern Kentucky University, will run Friday night in the 5,000-meter run in the NCAA Track and Field Championships at famed Hayward Field.
Eason did not start running competitively until her freshman year at Sayre, when she joined the newly formed cross country team. She wanted to start track in sixth grade. Her mom, Cindy, the middle school athletic director and high school softball coach at Sayre, finally let Ann start running once she reached high school.
"She always felt she had to be involved in athletics," said Cindy Eason. "I decided we'll find a way to make it work."
Persuading her mom to let her be on the team amid their busy schedule was just one of the challenges Eason faced. Without a track at Sayre, she worked out at Lafayette High School and the University of Kentucky. Eason said they had to wait until those schools were done using the track.
That did not keep Eason and the Sayre team from finding success. In 2011, Eason's senior season, she was a member of the winning 4-by-800-meter relay at the Kentucky state championship meet. Eason claimed her own state title, and she almost took home two additional titles.
Eason easily won the 3,200-meter run, finishing 15 seconds faster than the second-place finisher, fellow Sayre runner Maddox Patterson. She finished a close second in both the 800 and the 1,600. She finished half a second behind the 1,600-meter winner. The finish in the 800 was even closer. The winner finished was just five-thousandths of a second ahead of Eason.
After her senior season, Eason moved down I-75 to Eastern Kentucky University. She looked at bigger schools, including Louisiana State, but she chose EKU because it was where she felt the most comfortable.
"EKU has all of the opportunities of a big school but still at a small school," Eason said. "I wanted a place where I could come in and make an impact, but I didn't want a lot of pressure."
It wasn't easy.
"My first year especially, I would get nervous during workouts trying to prove myself," Eason said. "I'm learning to channel it and become more excited. I've overcome that."
EKU Coach Rick Erdmann said Eason has smoothly made the jump from Sayre to EKU. "She's made the transition well from high school to college, academically and athletically," Erdmann said. "She's very efficient and very smart and very motivated."
Eason has won six Ohio Valley Conference titles, and she was named the 2012 OVC runner of the year in cross country and the 2013 OVC Indoor Track and Field Championship athlete of the meet.
But even with two years of college experience, she still gets nervous. She felt the nerves at the NCAA Eastern Regional meet May 23 to 25. She needed to place in the top five in one of the two heats or have one of the next two fastest times to qualify for the national meet.
"I really didn't have much of a game plan," Eason said. "I kept telling myself, just stay in the top five."
Eason was hoping for an honest pace that would spread out the field early on, because she isn't confident in her closing ability. But the pace was slower than she hoped. She finished third in her heat to keep her season alive, with a time of 16:11.51 for the 5,000 meters.
"She stayed in a good position in the mile and the two-mile," Erdmann said. "She ran a 4:47 last mile, which is close to her personal record."
Eason, whose regional time ranks 18th of the 24 runners in the national meet, said now that she has qualified, there is no pressure on her. She said knowing that she is in good shape has helped calm her nerves.
"Now, I'm excited." Eason said. "All of the hard work is done and there is nothing else I can do."