Four years after Jackie Coward chose UCF, program is among nation's elite
Published: Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 16:02
Things haven't been easy for the 17th-ranked UCF track & field team. Just four years ago, the Knights had never been ranked, never had an All-American and had a first-year head coach in Caryl Smith Gilbert.
In August 2008, Jackie Coward took a chance on the Knights, a chance that has paid dividends.
"UCF wasn't on the map, and just I took the step of faith just coming out here and just really trying something new," Coward said.
Now in her senior season, Coward holds the indoor 60-meter hurdles and the outdoor 100-meter hurdles school records, in addition to the outdoor 400-meter hurdles school and Conference USA Championship record.
The two-time All American credits her growth to her coach and her own tireless work ethic.
"She [Smith Gilbert] is always on me whether that's academics, spiritual wise or being a leader on this team," Coward said. "Our relationship is very close."
Since Coward is a sprinter, competition in practice encourages improvement. Coward has a close competitor in senior teammate Ashley Bolling.
"Every day on the track is competition, so just because she is my friend she still gets it every day," Bolling said. "We go at it every day. Some days I bust her up, some days she busts me up. That's just how we work."
The Knights have peaked this season at No. 5 in the national indoor rankings, and much of the credit goes to the initiative of Smith Gilbert and Coward.
"She has helped us quite a bit. When recruits saw Jackie come here, they stopped being afraid to come," Smith Gilbert said. "She opened up the door for a lot of things."
Landing Coward four years ago proved to be no simple task. As arguably the nation's top runner coming out of high school, Coward received no shortage of interest from perennial national powers.
"All of the other big-name schools were recruiting her, and we hadn't had one All-American here in history," Smith Gilbert said. "I told her that we were going to make history, and I wanted her to be a part of [building] a tradition, rather than going and being a part of something that already exists."
The two have made considerable steps toward making the history Smith Gilbert spoke of.
Last year, in her fourth season as head coach, Smith Gilbert was named C-USA Indoor and Outdoor Coach of the Year. Coward subsequently won C-USA Track Athlete of the Year last season.
Building on the success of her first No. 1 recruit, Smith Gilbert was able to ink Octavious Freeman last spring, her newest star runner.
"When you get one top recruit, the other No. 1's start looking," Smith Gilbert said.
Freeman started off the season with a bang, earning the C-USA Female Track Athlete of the Week three times in the first five weeks of the season.
"Octavious has a different mind set; she wants it," Coward said. "She is coming in here and dominating and doing things that most freshmen do not do."
Freeman is just another in what the program hopes will be the continuing trend started by Coward.
"Even now, recruits saw Jackie do well and now Octavious doing well, it keeps us going," Smith Gilbert said. "She got everyone to start thinking about us, and then she ran fast once she got here. Sometimes you recruit a No. 1 and then they don't run fast and then nobody will touch you [as a program]."
Coward hopes to finish her senior season off the way she has run her entire career, by winning and breaking records. She is also hopeful the culmination of her efforts could lead to the Olympic Qualifying this summer.
"I have goals but instead of just focusing on the times, I am focusing more on the task than the outcome," Coward said. "If I focus on the task, the outcome will follow."