The nagging injuries are now behind her and so, too, is the competition.
Record-setting sprinter LaQuisha Jackson, from the Howard School, has returned to the form that made her the most decorated track athlete in Tennessee high school history, and she's focused on becoming the nation's next great woman in the sport.
Now a freshman at San Diego State University, Jackson has healed from a hamstring injury that forced her to miss her senior season at Howard as well as the college indoor season. In only her third competition as a collegian, she won Mountain West Conference championships in the 100- and 200-meter dashes last weekend at Las Vegas, with personal-best times in each event, and also ran the anchor leg for the first-place 4x400 relay team that broke school and conference records.
"When you consider the injury she's been battling and the fact that she really hadn't run competitively in almost two years, I was shocked by what she did," said Lady Aztecs sprint coach Carjay Lyles, a former University of Tennessee All-American. "That just goes to show her raw talent and pure determination not to lose.
"If she stays healthy and mentally focused, Chattanooga will have an Olympic gold medalist in LaQuisha. She's the next U.S. sprinter the rest of the nation will know about."
"DESTINED TO BE GREAT"
The late Florence Griffith Joyner, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, earned the label of "fastest woman of all time" because the world records she set in 1988 in the 100 meters (10.49 seconds) and 200 meters (21.34 seconds) have yet to be challenged. Her husband, Al Joyner, also the brother of famed athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, recently attended a San Diego State meet.
"His eyes watered when he watched LaQuisha work out, and he told me that she would be the one who would break his wife's records," Lyles said. "It's an honor for me to work with her, because this kind of ability doesn't come around often. ... I told her she can't be scared to be great, because she's destined to be great."
Jackson will compete in the 100, 200 and 4x400 events at an NCAA regional meet May 23-25 at Texas A&M, and if she finishes in the top 12 in any of them she will advance to the national meet June 5-8 at Oregon.
Her time in the 100 (11.31 seconds) is the fastest by any freshman nationally and is the seventh-fastest among all female sprinters this season. It also ranked as the third-fastest time in conference history, and her time in the 200 (23.23 seconds) is the second-fastest among freshmen. The Lady Aztecs' 4x400 finish (3:35) was eight seconds ahead of the next closest team and ranked 10th nationally.
"It's extremely rare to have a freshman run the anchor leg of any relay team," Lyles said. "You typically don't trust kids that young for such an important role, but because I know her talent and how hard she works, I never hesitated. That's a grueling event, but she just blistered it."
Jackson was rated the nation's No. 2 freshman sprinter and doesn't hesitate to acknowledge that her ultimate goal is to be an Olympian. Lyles said he believes Jackson will be ready to qualify for the Olympics in the 200 and possibly 100 and 400 by 2016.
"I was homesick for a little while, but now I've adjusted to living out here and I love it," Jackson said of California. "I love the weather, the beach, my teammates, friends and coaches.
"Running in college is nothing like high school. It's all business here, but that's OK because I have high goals for myself. I'm feeling more confident now that I'm healthy again, and I know I'm out here for a reason."
HIGH SCHOOL HERO
Jackson was a nine-time state champion at Howard, even without a senior season, winning five individual titles and anchoring four sprint relay teams to first-place finishes. She never lost an individual race in her prep career.
She burst onto the state scene her freshman season with the Lady Hustlin' Tigers when she almost singlehandedly led them to a team state title by dominating the 100 and 200 with the fastest times in all classifications and rallied the 4x100 and 4x200 relay teams to first-place finishes. That summer she broke a 29-year-old AAU national record in the 400 despite never having trained for that event.
As a sophomore Jackson broke a 32-year-old TSSAA record in the 200 (23.86 seconds) and also set a record in the 100 (11.46 seconds), which was the nation's third-fastest time for a prep runner. Again that season she rallied the two sprint relay teams to state titles from the middle of the pack when she took the baton for the final leg.
By her junior year at Howard, Jackson had become the main draw at the Spring Fling. More than 4,000 spectators packing the Middle Tennessee State University stands watched her put on a show unlike any previous individual athlete.
Each time her name was called before an event, the overflow crowd buzzed with anticipation, and as she stepped into the starting blocks for her races, athletes from different classifications competing in other events stopped to watch. The night she set two state records, the entire crowd gave her a standing ovation after her final race.
"God has a plan for me," Jackson said. "I see myself running in the Olympics. ... I feel like he gave me a special talent, and I always want to use that talent for him.
"I'm just so thankful for the opportunities I have," she said. "Sometimes I take a step back and see where I am, and I can't believe it's all happening so fast. But I want to make my family and the people who have supported me back home really proud."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.