Redshirt senior Ayla Smith rebounded from an injury that held her back from competition this indoor track and field season and helped Virginia’s distance medley relay team advance to NCAAs, where they earned All-America honors with a third-place finish. The quartet of junior Morgane Gay, Smith, senior Lyndsay Harper and redshirt senior Stephanie Garcia combined at Columbia’s Last Chance meet on March 4 to shatter the 28-year-old school record (and former world record) set at 11:19.39 in 1982 by four All-Americans. Their time of 10:59.33 is the third-fastest time run in the NCAA this year.
Already the school record holder in the 60m hurdles and the 100m hurdles, Smith enters her final season of competition looking to break UVa’s 400m hurdles record as well. She is currently ranked fourth.
Virginia will open its 2011 outdoor season next weekend (March 25-26) at Richmond.
Question: You finished third at NCAAs to earn All-America honors. Talk about the race. How were you guys feeling going into it?
Smith: We were feeling really excited after our awesome race the previous week. That performance gave us a lot of momentum going in to NCAAs. We knew the rankings didn’t necessarily reflect the teams that would be in the field, so we were careful to not be over-confident while still recognizing the fact that our time proved we deserved to be in the field competing with the best in the country.
Question: What about after you handed off to Lyndsay? Did you feel good about your performance and the position that you and Morgane worked to put Lyndsay and Stephanie in?
Smith: We handed off to Lyndsay in about the same position that we did the previous week, so she was toward the back of the main pack, which is perfect for her because she runs really well when she has some girls within a reasonable distance in front of her to try and catch. She did her job perfectly, catching a few girls, and then Stephanie finished the job just as we knew she would.
Question: What was going through your head as Stephanie crossed the line? How excited were you guys of your race?
Smith: We were so excited; it was such an amazing moment! None of us had qualified for the indoor NCAA Championships before, so it was awesome that we could all come together in the first DMR in UVa history to qualify and become All-Americans. We knew third was attainable, but to watch it unfold was an incredible experience.
Question: Talk a little bit about your 400-meter leg in particular. It’s the shortest and fastest, so you don’t have a lot of time to do much. What are your thoughts on that leg or what is your technique through that portion of the race?
Smith: As I keep telling everyone, I just felt lucky that those girls let me on the relay because they really did all the work. As the shortest leg, my job is mostly just to hold our position. So I did my best to hand off to Lyndsay in the best position possible to keep us up in the mix so she could hand off to Stephanie with the chance to compete with the top girls.
Question: How is that different than if you were to run an open 400-meter race?
Smith: In the relay last weekend at NCAAs, the 400-meter legs all went out really fast and then died pretty badly. Our first 200 meters was in 24 seconds, which is a PR for me in the open 200 meter, and the second was something like 29 seconds. If I were to run an open race, I’d probably run my own race instead of doing whatever the other legs did. I’d go out a little more relaxed and try to maintain the pace a little bit better on the second lap. In the relay, you just get scared to drop off of the pace that everyone else is setting, so you kind of let them run the race for you, which can affect your usual strategy.
Question: Going back, this was your first NCAA appearance. Does it feel good to have finally made it?
Smith: It feels awesome! I didn’t get there exactly how I had anticipated due to a torn hamstring in January. I thought I’d probably go to NCAAs in the pentathlon, but because of my injury I wasn’t able to train for much aside for the 400 meters. And I couldn’t even race that until the DMR at the last chance meet. It was definitely a blessing in disguise though, because I probably wouldn’t have been able to run on the DMR if I had gone to NCAAs in the pentathlon. Being an All-American and getting third on a relay is so much more rewarding and fun than doing it individually because you get to share the excitement with three other people. I’m really happy with the outcome, it’s funny how things work themselves out sometimes!
Question: What was the atmosphere at the meet like?
Smith: Everyone there is ranked top-15 in the country, so it was crazy looking around and being surrounded by incredible athletes. I felt like such a track nerd recognizing people I’ve only read about. Watching the meet was the best part, because every race was awesome and the crowd was totally in to it.
Question: Looking ahead now, what are you most excited about for this outdoor season? Do you have anything in particular that you’re looking to accomplish?
Smith: I hope we put a DMR together for Penn Relays! But there isn’t a DMR in the outdoor NCAA Championships, so mostly I’m looking forward to the 400m hurdles. It’s sort of my baby and I haven’t been able to race it much throughout my college career because I’ve been plagued with injury.
I’d like to set the school record in it so I can have all of the hurdle records and become an All-American in it as well. I want to score as many points as I can for the team at all of the scored meets we go to and I hope to contribute to a successful 4x400m relay as well. But above all else, I want to keep having fun. NCAAs was incredible!