May 26, 2010
By Andrew Gavin
NCAA Championships Central
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Numerous heroic performances helped the UCF track and field team win the Conference USA Championships recently. There were numerous athletes with overachieving efforts, many which came up big in clutch situations and many which did their jobs just by doing what was expected.
However, the most heroic performance came from the Knights most accomplished athlete, who also happened to be the team's biggest question mark entering the meet.
Senior Tiki James is an All-American and a three-time school-record holding hurdler. She was expected to be one of the country's top hurdlers entering the season, but after severely injuring her ankle warming up at the NCAA Indoor Championships in March, James was forced to spend her spring season in the training room instead of on the track.
"It was rough because I could not run," James said. "I was expecting to only be out a couple weeks, but it didn't turn out that way and it was hard mentally and emotionally. I was playing the waiting game because I did not know when I would finally be able to come back."
Heading into Saturday's preliminary heats of the 100-meter hurdles, James had still not run the event this season, and even she had no idea what to expect from herself physically or, more importantly, mentally. An athlete who under normal circumstances would be a lock to earn a spot on the podium, James was left wondering as she got into the blocks whether she would even make the final.
"I felt pretty good going into it physically, but mentally I had my doubts because I had not run any races in two months and I did not have anything to measure my performance against," James said. "I went to go see [sports psychologist] Tim Fortney the day before to get my thoughts right. He helped me and I just tried to have faith and believe in my practices. I just had to realize I was the same person that I was before the injury. Once the gun went off I was fine."
Her preliminary time of 13.46 did not threaten her school-record effort set in 2009, but it did easily earn her a spot in the finals, second only to teammate Jackie Coward
in qualifying. More importantly, James proved to herself that she was still the star she had always been.
"I got through [the prelims] so then in the finals I was less worried about getting through the race and more concerned with the technical aspect, getting my time down and scoring points for the team," James said. "The first round it was about getting through it, but the finals I knew I was ready to run."
It was that confidence which meant that when she returned to those blocks for the finals Sunday afternoon, with UCF trailing by more than 30 points, she was focused not on her injury, but on her race.
That mental confidence also helped James ignore the lightning horn which blared just seconds before the starter's gun.
"I noticed it but I did not know if they were going to call it or not. When we went into the set position, I just tried to stay in my mindset and stay focused," James said. "We knew what the horn meant, but I did not allow it to distract me at all. I just listened for the gun and went."
James' effort was like the old days, flying over hurdles and crossing the line in 13.19 seconds, good for second place in between Coward and teammate Micaela Wimberly as the Knights finished 1-2-3. James scored eight of her teams' 25 points in the event which vaulted UCF from a distant sixth place into contention, and, eventually, to the C-USA championship.
"The severity of the injury could have prevented her from running at all, but without those eight points in the hurdles and without her running the first leg in the 4x100 when we broke the school record, we would been at least three points shy of a championship," head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert said.
James' courage was a jolt to the Knights, on the scoreboard and in the entire team's confidence as UCF rallied to claim its first C-USA title by five points over UTEP.
"I do not think those kind of performances should be overlooked because I am always talking about perseverance and being a leader, and Tiki showed me a thing or two," Smith Gilbert said. "Tiki is a leader by example, and she showed a great example to me and her teammates."
The reward for her efforts is not only a C-USA title, but also a repeat trip to this week's NCAA East Championships, where she is seeded tenth despite missing nearly the entire season. In last season's East Regionals, James broke the school record to take second place and earn a trip to the national championships, where she finished 12th. As her collegiate career winds down, her goals are lofty.
"My goal of course is to qualify for nationals and [set a personal best]. I am ready to run. I am not anxious and I'm ready to go," James said. "I'm just focused to drop my time and get where I need to be. The ultimate goal is to get to nationals.
"I am thankful and blessed I made it here with only two races. I had strong faith in God and that I was put through the whole thing for a reason, and it is time for me to shine now. I am thankful that everything happened how it did because I believe something big is in store for me and that is what keeps me going."
One thing is certain. When James gets into the blocks on Friday, she will no longer be a question mark.