By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– The sport that led her to the University of Virginia played no part in Alexis Woodley’s life until her junior year at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake. As a girl, her athletic passions were gymnastics and cheerleading, not track & field.
“Track was kind of a freak accident,” Woodley recalled. “It was in the spring, and gymnastics and cheerleading don’t go on in the spring. All my friends were running track, so I was like, ‘Let me just try it.’ And I ended up making states, my first time running ever.”
Her skills as a sprinter, hurdler and jumper, however unpolished, attracted the interest of Bryan Fetzer, then Virginia’s director of track & field and cross country. “He gave my coach his card that spring, and then I took my visit [to UVA] the fall of my senior year and committed that fall,” Woodley said.
Before she became a track & field standout, Woodley said, “college was an iffy thing for me.” But she’s excelled on and off the track at UVA, where she’s in her final semester.
Woodley, who carries a double major (anthropology and philosophy), plans to start law school in 2021-22, most likely at a historically black college or university. She’s hoping to land an internship for 2020-21 and has applied to the ACC and the Orange Bowl, among other organizations.
On the track, she’s become a major contributor for the Cavaliers, who are now under the direction of Vin Lananna. Late last month, Woodley broke her own school record in the 60-meter hurdles, running a time of 8.31 seconds. She’ll compete today in that event at the ACC indoor championships in Notre Dame, Ind.
“I definitely want to make the podium and score big for the team,” Woodley said, referring to a top-three finish, “and this being my last year, run the fastest I can, because this is it for me.”
Michelle Freeman, a former Olympic hurdler, coaches Virginia’s sprinters and hurdlers. At the ACC indoor meet, defending champion Tiara McMinn of Miami is the favorite in the 60m hurdles, Freeman said, but “other than that, it’s wide open. Alexis right now is ready to run fast. She just has to know and believe [in herself].
“Last year she struggled, because she had some issues. She hurt her ankle, and we missed quality training, and that messes with your head a lot. But this year she came back more open and dedicated and wanting it more than ever. So the sky’s the limit.”
Freeman joined the Wahoos’ coaching staff before Woodley’s second year.
“I had to start with the basics with her,” Freeman said, “when it comes to landing and body positions and all that kind of stuff. But she’s a pretty dedicated kid. She put in a lot of work, a lot of sacrifices, to be where she is today.”
Freeman smiled. “It was a lot of hard work. There were many times when I had to hold my head and I was like, ‘Dang, what did I get myself into?’ But it’s part of the process. You have kids who have been taught well to do certain things, and then you have kids who go out there and run, and then when they come to college, you have to deal with what you have to deal with, to help them be whoever they want to become.”
In indoor track, Woodley also has competed in the 4×400 relay and, occasionally, the 200. Outdoors, her main event is the 100 hurdles, but she’s also run on the 4×100 and 4×400 relay teams.
“That’s my max,” Woodley said, laughing, of the 400. “For me it’s like forever. I’m used to running straight and being done. I don’t like turning. I don’t like running laps.”
First and foremost, she’s a hurdler.
“It’s a really tough event,” Woodley said. “It was so much different than sprinting. I think I liked the whole technical part of it, for sure. That’s always been fun for me. I think that’s also coming from gymnastics, which is such a technical sport. I just enjoy technical events, and hurdles was that perfect balance for me where I could be technical, but still be able to run.”
Asked if she ever wonders what she might have achieved had she picked up the sport earlier, Woodley said, “I do think about that sometimes. But I’m OK with where I started, because I know a lot of my teammates have been running since they were little, like 8, 9, 10. They’re not tired of it now, but they’ve been doing it for so much longer. I’m still fresh. I’m learning so many things that I still like it a lot. It’s still new to me.”
Woodley’s closest friends include her former teammate Jade Baker, who graduated from UVA last year. Baker started competing in track & field when she was 5 years old, she said, and that took a toll on her at Virginia, where she holds the program record in the hammer throw.
“Track will beat you down,” Baker said.
For Woodley, it “almost helps her that she started so late,” Baker said, “because she’s had that chip on her shoulder, she’s had to keep going, she’s had that hunger to get better. I’ve seen amazing results from her off the track and on, but it’s all because she wants to do that.
“Alexis is just hungry. She has always been hungry to get better. She’s one of those people who, no matter what’s going on outside of the track in her life, she’s able to put it aside on the track, focus and get better every single day.”
Baker, who was a sprinter and hurdler at UVA before joining the throws group, is in her first year of law school at Georgetown University. Academically, she’s been a role model for Woodley.
“I definitely look up to her in that aspect,” Woodley said.
Baker acknowledges that she’s helped make law school seem “more doable for Alexis. She saw me study for the LSAT, she saw me get in. So I think seeing that process work positively for someone she knows really enabled her to think, ‘Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can get into this school or that school.’ “
Woodley didn’t start considering law school until after she arrived at UVA. She’d like to stay involved in sports after she’s stopped competing.
“I don’t want it to end here,” she said. “I know athletically, as far as performing and actually running, I’m done. No pro or no Olympics for me, but I still want to be in the realm of sports. So I’ve thought about being an entertainment lawyer, and maybe being an agent to athletes when they’re signing contracts and things like that.”
Much has changed for Woodley since she enrolled at UVA in 2016. She was still a newcomer to her sport then, and her academic goals had yet to be defined.
“Of course, like everyone I’ve gone through rough patches,” Woodley said, “but I’ve definitely matured a lot, as far as my classes and my sport, and that’s made me really happy. I think now, finally, in my fourth year I’m starting to see the fruits of my labor.”