By Jon Cooper | The Good Word -
THE FLATS -- Getting the opportunity to compete for a national championship is not easy. For some, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Imagine, then, how difficult it is getting the opportunity to compete for a national championship more than once.
It's a precious opportunity that Georgia Tech juniors Jeanine Williams and Avery Bartlett fully recognize and are intent on taking advantage of when they compete in this weekend's NCAA Indoor Championships at Gilliam Indoor Stadium, in College Station, Texas, located on the campus of Texas A&M.
Williams goes for gold in the 60-meter high hurdles while Bartlett tries to chase down gold in the 800 meters.
Getting to NCAAs really is rare, although you wouldn't know it from examining Williams and Bartlett's career ledger. It's the second-consecutive national championships that the pair has gone to together -- both also qualified for last spring's NCAA Outdoors.
They'll even get to watch each other compete, as the women's 60m hurdles are scheduled for Friday evening at 8:05 and the men's 800 goes off right after, at 8:15 (both times ET). The same is true on Saturday, should they reach their respective finals, as the hurdles start at 6:20, with the 800 going off at 6:30.
"It's great," said Bartlett, who is coming off a season-best run of 1:47.58 at the 2018 ACC Championships, where he finished fifth. "Her success motivates me and I'm sure the other way around."
"It's fun," agreed Williams, whose 8.04 won at ACCs, yet actually was 0.02 behind her personal best, set at the 2018 Clemson Invitational. "We cheer when we're there. It's actually very exciting. I never thought I would see myself at NCAA Nationals so I'm pretty excited."
Williams shouldn't have been THAT blindsided by getting to College Station. Coming off her superb outdoor season, during which she competed after sustaining toe and ankle injuries -- she showed up at NCAA Indoors walking with the help of crutches and wearing a boot -- she won back-to-back ACC Performer of the Week, the second week coming after she ran her blistering 8.02 at Clemson.
"Last indoor, I had a toe injury and I had an ankle injury, so I was on crutches and boot," she said. "Being healthy, definitely, is a big factor in running the best that you know you can."
About the only surprise in Williams running at College Station for Georgia Tech is that she chose to do so instead of running last weekend for her native Jamaica at the IAAF World Indoor Championships, in Birmingham, England. It actually was an easy decision for her.
"I only have one other season for my college experience," she said. "So I'll go with college experience and then, since I want to go pro, I can always make the World Indoor Team again."
Williams can be that confident.
She's had a tremendous season indoors and has had success on the track at the Gilliam, where she ran 8.25 in winning the 60mHH at the Charlie Thomas Invitational back on Feb. 2 and 3. She plans to use that familiarity to her advantage.
"You see how it feels, see certain things to do and you also know what you have to do when you warm up because not all schools have a warm-up track," she said. "It's more like an indoor football facility. It's a good track. But to me, it's just like any other track."
Bartlett is similarly focused.
He is treating these NCAAs as just another meet and comes in relaxed as he's not only familiar with the track, where he ran 1:49.64 in winning the 800 at this year's Charlie Thomas Invitational, but also where he ran there at last year's Indoors.
"This is my second time there so I'm less excited, more business-oriented," said Bartlett, who ran 1:49.58 in finishing 15th at last year's Indoors. "I'm way more focused and less distracted by the significance of it."
Bartlett's dedication in running for Georgia Tech is as heartfelt as Williams' is. He's a fourth-generation Yellow Jacket, as his great-grandfather, grandfather and both parents all graduated from Georgia Tech. He makes no bones about that family-based inspiration.
"I'm not trying to place well for me," he said. "I'm trying to represent Georgia Tech."
Both Williams and Bartlett will have an eye on the clock and the record book as well as the medal stand.
Williams' 8.02 is 0.04 off the school-record time set by Shantia Moss at the 2007 NCAA Indoors. It's the fastest time in the ACC this year, the fourth-fastest time in the country -- it's the fastest in her home country, 0.07 ahead of Villanova volunteer assistant coach Monique Morgan -- and the 22nd fastest in the world.
"I'm aiming for the school record this weekend," she said. "I'm not far off, so I feel like I can get it. The hope is definitely winning, but if not, getting the school record. I'm focusing on having fun and I feel like if I focus on that everything will fall into place."
Bartlett already holds the school record in the 800, with a 1:47.32 at last year's ACCs, where he finished fourth, so he's looking more at where he finishes.
"I'm looking to make the finals because that puts me first-team all-American and that's the next goal. Once I do that, I'll look forward," he said. "I'm really looking just to place well and if I get a faster (school-record) time, great. But most important, if I could run 1:53 and make it to the finals I'll be happier than if I run 1:46 and don't."
He's happy with the way he's racing coming off ACCs, and plans to run much the same way, only with a better finish.
"I let that race get away," he said. "I wasn't really happy with my place but I was really happy with my time. A lot of the same people that I raced against at ACCs will be in my heat at nationals so I've got more experience racing against them. I'll know how to put myself in better position so I don't just run a fast time and don't place that well. That's where my strength is, racing rather than just running fast.
"This year and the past year I've really worked on my weaknesses," he added. "I've always been more aerobic, kind of running from the back and catching people. I've worked on my start a little bit more, I've worked on being more powerful. I know my competition a lot better this year, I know how these races usually pan out so I'm way more prepared and am looking to run faster instead of just being happy that I'm there."