Eight-tenths of a second. Basically, it’s the blink of an eye … a tiny fraction of most peoples’ lives.
But it was enough to keep a 16-year-old Harding University High School hurdler in Charlotte this weekend, rather than competing in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
It wasn’t that sophomore Akala Garrett-Collins’ times weren’t fast enough for her to compete in the Olympic 400-meter hurdles. They were.
Rather, it was unfinished business back home.
“I wanted to be here, and help us redeem ourselves,” says Garrett-Collins, whose indoor time of 41.91 seconds in the 300-meter hurdles was the fastest ever for a sophomore in North Carolina.
“We missed winning last year by less than a second,” she says. “It’s not about me. It’s about the team.”
Some explanation is needed here.
In February 2020, Garrett-Collins ran the anchor leg on Harding’s 4×400-meter relay team at the indoor high school track and field championships. The Rams lost by .8 of a second to Mallard Creek.
The Rams figured they’d win the state championship during the spring outdoor season.
But a few weeks after the indoor meet, Harding track coach LaSonja Collins — Akala’s mother — was informed that the outdoor season was being canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We cried,” Garrett-Collins says. “We wanted that chance.”
So with two of the other three relay team members returning this year, Akala-Garrett opted to compete in the 4A Western Regional track and field meet Friday at Olympic High. It is among 16 regionals — four in each size classification — taking place this Friday and Saturday. The top-four finishers in each regional advance to next weekend’s state finals.
“Yeah, what could have been,” Garrett-Collins says, referring to the Olympic Trials.
Her mother, who won the 100-meter dash state championship in 1999 at Independence High, says Akala will have other chances.
“She is just 16 and is still getting better,” LaSonja Collins says. “She has time.”
Akala Garrett-Collins says she always wanted to run track.
“She was born into it,” her mother says. “In the womb, she could hear the gun go off.”
When her mother became track coach at Harding seven years ago, Akala came to practice nearly every day. It was fun, and she enjoyed making friends.
But when she was 9, she missed a medal by one place in the Junior Olympics.
“She came to me in tears and asked, ‘How can I get faster?’ ” her mother says.
With plenty of practice and help from a couple of the Charlotte area’s top hurdles experts, Akala grew up to be fast. Very fast. By age 11, she won the national title in the 80-meter hurdles for her age group.
As a freshman, she won the state indoor title at 55 meters. Her times in the 100- and 400-meter hurdles this year are fastest in the state. Only the defending 100-meter hurdles 4A state champ, Cardinal Gibbons’ Taylor McKinnon, has times rivaling Garrett-Collins.
But she is a team player.
“She is very humble,” her mother says.
“I just want to help our team do as well as possible,” Akala says.
LaSonja Collins had only four members on her first team at Harding. She has worked hard to build interest, and the Rams’ track and field squad has grown steadily since.
“I made several of the girls play volleyball last fall,” she says. “They didn’t have a lot of (volleyball) talent, but they bonded. They have learned to work hard for one another.”
Akala Garrett-Collins says she knows the Olympics will still be there in 2024. She’ll only be 19 then and will have the added support of college coaches.
“That is my goal, and I believe I’ll have a chance,” she says. “But this year, I needed to be here. We wanted another chance to win the state championship. We had to wait a year, but now it is front of us.”
Regional track/field outlook
For a pair of Wake County teams, this weekend’s regional meets are the first steps in defending state championships.
Cary won the 2019 boys outdoor 4A title, and Panther Creek prevailed in 3A.
When/where: Friday, Olympic High, Charlotte.
Top teams: Mallard Creek, Olympic boys; Providence, Myers Park, Harding, Mallard Creek girls.
Story line: Akala Garrett-Collins aims at national times in the 100 and 400 meter hurdles.
Charlotte-area teams: Ardrey Kell, Berry Academy, Harding University, Hopewell, Hough, Lake Norman, Mallard Creek, McDowell, Mooresville, North Mecklenburg, Olympic, Providence, South Caldwell, South Mecklenburg, Vance, West Charlotte, West Mecklenburg.
When/where: Saturday, Davie County High, Mocksville.
Top teams: West Forsyth, East Mecklenburg, Reagan boys; Reagan, West Forsyth, Ragsdale girls.
Story line: Myers Park’s Mary Bonner Dalton (3,200 meters) and Davie County’s Spencer Williams (shot put, discus) are elite-level athletes.
Charlotte-area teams: Butler, East Mecklenburg, Garinger, Hickory Ridge, Independence, Myers Park, Porter Ridge, Rocky River.
When/where: Friday, UNC Pembroke.
Top teams: Cary, Apex, Panther Creek and Lumberton boys; Panther Creek and Pinecrest girls.
Story line: The two defending 4A state champs (Cary boys, Panther Creek girls) are here. Apex junior Sarah Mitchell is a state title threat at 800 and 1,600 meters.
Triangle-area teams: Apex, Apex Friendship, Athens Drive, Cary, Fuquay-Varina, Garner, Green Hope, Green Level, Hillside, Holly Springs, Jordan, Middle Creek, Panther Creek, Riverside, South Garner.
When/where: Friday, Cardinal Gibbons High, Raleigh.
Top teams: Southeast Raleigh boys and girls; Cardinal Gibbons boys and girls; Rolesville boys; Garner girls.
Story line: Cardinal Gibbons hurdler Taylor McKinnon (100 hurdles) is among few defending state champions returning, since the 2020 season was wiped out by COVID-19.
Triangle-area teams: Broughton, Cardinal Gibbons, Corinth Holders, Enloe, Heritage, Knightdale, Leesville Road, Millbrook, Rolesville, Sanderson, Southeast Raleigh, Wake Forest, Wakefield.
When/where: Friday, T.C. Roberson High, Skyland.
Top teams: A wide-open race for the boys; North Iredell and Hunter Huss girls.
Story line: Forestview senior Josh Virgil has outstanding times in the 110 hurdles.
Charlotte-area teams: Alexander Central, Ashbrook, Crest, East Rowan, Forestview, Freedom, Hickory, Hunter Huss, Jesse Carson, Kings Mountain, North Gaston, North Iredell, South Iredell, St. Stephens, Statesville, Stuart Cramer, Watauga, West Iredell.
When/where: Saturday, Dudley High, Greensboro.
Top teams: A loaded boys’ field, with Weddington, Cuthbertson, Mount Tabor and A.L. Brown; Parkland, Cuthbertson, Marvin Ridge girls.
Story line: Southern Carolina 3A teams have dominated this region in recent years, with Mount Tabor also competing.
Charlotte-area teams: A.L. Brown, Central Cabarrus, Charlotte Catholic, Concord, Cox Mill, Cuthbertson, Jay M. Robinson, Marvin Ridge, Monroe, Northwest Cabarrus, Parkwood, Piedmont, Sun Valley, Weddington, West Cabarrus.
When/where: Saturday, Southern Lee High, Sanford.
Top teams: Southern Durham and Southern Lee boys; Chapel Hill, Northwood, Southern Alamance girls.
Story line: Gordon Harwell (Chapel Hill) and Bailey Tart (Northern) are capable of winning the boys’ and girls’ state pole vault titles.
Triangle-area teams: Cedar Ridge, Chapel Hill, East Chapel Hill, Northern, Orange, Southern Durham.
When/where: Friday, Franklinton High.
Top teams: North Brunswick, Cleveland, Topsail, Franklinton boys; West Johnston, North Brunswick, Topsail girls.
Story line: Lora Dillon leads a contingent of three strong long-jumpers from Cleveland.
Triangle-area teams: Clayton, Cleveland, East Wake, Smithfield-Selma, South Johnston, West Johnston.
When/where: Friday, East Burke High, Icard.
Top teams: North Lincoln, Lake Norman Charter boys; Lake Norman Charter, North Lincoln, East Lincoln, Hendersonville girls.
Story line: The North Lincoln boys are defending state champions. Can they repeat?
Charlotte-area teams: Bandys, Bunker Hill, Burns, Chase, Draughn, East Burke, East Gaston, East Lincoln, East Rutherford, Fred T. Foard, Hibriten, Lake Norman Charter, Lincolnton, Maiden, Newton-Conover, North Lincoln, Patton, R-S Central, Shelby, South Point, West Caldwell, West Iredell, West Lincoln.
When/where: Saturday, Surry Central High, Dobson.
Top teams: Atkins, Salisbury, South Rowan, West Stokes boys; Lexington, Oak Grove, Surry Central girls.
Story line: West Stanly’s Natalie Almond goes for a sweep at 1,600 and 3,200 meters.
Charlotte-area teams: Anson County, Ashe County, Central Academy, Forest Hills, Mount Pleasant, Salisbury, South Rowan, West Stanly.
When/where: Saturday, Franklinton High.Top teams: T.W. Andrews, Durham School of Arts boys; Cummings, Carrboro, Durham School of Arts girls.
Story line: Carrboro distance runners Hannah Preisser and Madeline Ramsden could score enough points for their team to threaten defending state champion Cummings for the regional crown.
Triangle-area teams: Carrboro, Durham School of Arts.
When/where: Friday, Croatan High, Newport.
Top teams: Croatan boys and girls; Northeastern, First Flight boys; Kinston, Southwest Onslow girls.
Triangle-area teams: North Johnston.
When/where: Friday, Cherokee High.
Top teams: Murphy, Polk County boys; Murphy, Highland Tech, Swain County girls.
Story line: Murphy is the defending 1A girls’ state champion. But Lauren Tolbert heads a strong group of Highland Tech sprinters.
Charlotte-area teams: Bessemer City, Cherryville, Christ the King, Highland Tech, Lincoln Charter, Piedmont Community Charter, Thomas Jefferson Academy.
When/where: Friday, Davie County High, Mocksville.
Top teams: Mountain Island Charter, Community School of Davidson, South Davidson boys; Winston-Salem Prep, Pine Lake Prep girls.
Story line: Pine Lake Prep junior Jake Morgan is among the state’s top pole vaulters, in any class.
Charlotte-area teams: Albemarle, Bradford Prep, Carolina International School, Community School of Davidson, Gray Stone Day, Langtree Charter, Mountain Island Charter, North Rowan, North Stanly, Pine Lake Prep, Queens Grant Charter, South Stanly, Union Academy.
When/where: Saturday, Franklinton High.
Top teams: Research Triangle Academy boys and girls, Princeton boys and girls.
Story line: Research Triangle, with a strong corps of distance runners, is more than a minute faster than any other team in the 4×800 relay.
Triangle-area teams: East Wake Academy, Eno River Academy, Falls Lake Academy, Franklin Academy, Neuse Charter, Princeton, Raleigh Charter, Research Triangle Academy, River Mill Academy, Southern Wake Academy, Triangle Math and Science Academy, Voyager Academy, Woods Charter.
When/where: Saturday, Pender County High, Burgaw.
Top teams: John A. Holmes, Tarboro boys; East Carteret, Pender County girls.
Triangle-area teams: None.
Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle