It would be hard to find fault with T.C. Williams junior Nyla Ward for scratching on all three of her attempts in the 6A long jump. After all, there haven't been many opportunities this indoor season to jump in a real pit.
"This was the best practice we have had all season," exclaimed jumping coach James Garner, minutes after Ward had wrapped up the state title with her leap of 19 feet and 2.75 inches. There was no disrespect intended in the comment, especially after Garner elaborated on the reason for stating it.
"It's been a tough winter for us. Our pits are frozen, and last Tuesday and Wednesday were the first days we have been able to practice outside in four, five weeks."
Ward, with remarkable modesty, explained some of the faults she need to tweak after Saturday's jumps.
"I need to work on keeping my head and my eyes up," adding that failing to do so forces her to reach for the board with her final approach step.
If Ward succeeds, a great plateau should be reached. Her best jump indoors has been 19-5, but last spring, as a sophomore, she just missed breaking the 20-foot barrier by the smallest possible margin, leaping 19-11.75 while placing second in the 6A State meet. She admitted that taking a quick peek at the takeoff board during her finals may have caused her to overstep and step over the board on all three attempts.
There was no reason for concern. With a 13-inch lead (Jazmine Tilmon of Western Branch was second in 18-1.75), Ward was allowed the chance to take three worry-free jumps at a big competition, while aiming for the elusive 20.
Of course, getting past 20 feet is her goal, right?
"Actually, I'm trying to get the school record," said Ward, referring to the 20-1.25 mark set by Tynita Butts at the National Scholastic Indoor Championships in 2009. Butts had tacked on three more inches during the previous outdoor season, meaning that eventually 20-4.5 will be the mark that Ward aims for.
The comparisons between Butts and Ward are beginning to take shape, especially after Ward broke her elder's 55-meter school record earlier this season. Garner, who has coached jumpers at the Alexandria school for 17 years is the common link.
"Am I not the luckiest coach in the world," questions Garner. "I just called my wife and told her, two state long jump champs. Incredible."
Butts moved on to East Carolina, where he developed into a 6-4 high jumper. With one more year of high school, her coaches wonder how high to set the bar with their latest prodigy. But both Garner, and head coach Mike Hughes admit, Ward is ready for the challenge.
"There is no finer athlete to work with," said Hughes, now in his 25th year at T.C. "She works hard and takes care of her life outside of track and field. She is very even keeled and down to earth."
Ward, who started in track as a nine-year old with the revered Cavalier/Cavalette youth track team in Prince George's County (MD), had ample opportunities to test her threshold of patience this winter, as snow and cold weather forced the Titans indoors on most days. Garner described what he called a "three-ring circus."
"Basically, we share a pit with the pole vaulters. So, we will have a pole vaulter jump, and then a jumper will come in from the side."
There are other training methods. "We have devised ways of working indoors. We're working on explosion with boxes. Sometimes, I'll stand in the pit with a stick in my hand and tell Nyla that I want her to jump and knock the stick out of my hand. She has to get to a certain height on her jump to do that."
There will be one more shot at 20 feet for this season, when Ward jumps at the New Balance Nationals. She will also run the 60 meters and take a final attempt at Butts' other short sprint record. Later on Saturday, she placed sixth in the 55 with a time of 7.11, just off her best of 7.07.
But there's always next year, and Ward's cool demeanor should help when the college coaches start calling en masse. To date, LSU, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech and South Carolina have reached out, and the first two schools have drawn the most attention from Ward. "Georgia has the best jumpers, and LSU is just ..." Ward's voice trails off, but she nods when the word "good" is interjected to fill in the blank about the perennially top-five nationally ranked Tiger team.
But for now, Nyla Ward will just work on keeping her eyes up.