Jackie Coward knows a thing or two about obstacles.
Coward, who graduated in 2012 as the most decorated hurdler in UCF history, is just a week away from realizing every track athlete’s dream: a trip to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
But first, she has to get to the U.S. Olympic Trials next week in Eugene, Oregon. And on top of having to beat out 31 other competitors for one of just three coveted spots for the 100-meter hurdles on Team USA, she also has to overcome the financial burden of chasing that dream without any financial endorsements to her name.
So Coward set up a GoFundMe page, asking for microdonations to cover her anticipated $4,000 in expenses, including travel, food, lodging, and treatment while in Eugene.
So far, she’s received donations from the likes of former UCF Athletic Director Keith Tribble, among other current and former staff members, and even fellow Knight Kamar Aiken, now playing for the Baltimore Ravens. $1,000 came from GoFundMe itself, as she was selected for a Give Back Award from the company.
“It’s a blessing,” she says in an interview prior to her leaving Montgomery, Alabama home for Oregon. “I’m in awe of it…The struggle has taught me a lot these past four years.”
A Decorated Knight
A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, Jackie Coward came to UCF and then-head coach Caryl Smith-Gilbert (who is now at USC) already a highly decorated hurdler. She set the national indoor high school record in the 60-meter event at 8.16 seconds, and was named a high school All-American twice by USA Today before she even arrived in Orlando. She also took home the bronze at the 2007 Junior Pan-Am Games and 12 state championships in multiple events.
Even so, by the end of her time in Orlando, Coward splashed her name across UCF’s record books. She won the Conference USA crown in the 400-meter hurdles as a freshman, and by her sophomore year, had come in fifth nationally in the 100-meter hurdles, becoming the first All-American in outdoor track and field in school history.
Then she really hit the afterburners.
As a junior, Coward finished in the nation in the 100-meter hurdles, picking up All-American honors again, and she was named Conference USA’s Female Athlete of the Year in outdoor and indoor track and field. She won the C-USA crown in the 100 and 400 hurdles, and helped UCF to its second straight team conference crown.
Then she did all that again as a senior, setting three school records – including one Conference USA Championships record – and finishing fourth in the NCAAs in the 100-meter hurdles is a school-record 12.81 seconds. She suddenly found herself at the 2012 Olympic Trials along with three other Knights.
There, it didn’t quite go according to plan, as Jackie finished 25th overall in the prelims, posting a 13.27.
After graduating from UCF with a degree in Sociology, Coward continued to train at Star Athletics, a track club based in Clermont, Florida, headed by the controversial former U.S. Olympian Dennis Mitchell. But something wasn’t clicking.
“I was there for four years, and then in my fourth year, I was looking at my career and what I had accomplished so far, and I was like, ‘You know what, I think it’s time for me to make a change,’ because I felt like I wasn’t where I should be,” Coward said.
So in early 2015, she called her old high school track club coach from Knoxville, Charles Ryan, who had moved to out to San Francisco, California, where he was coaching the Academy of Art University track team to two NCAA Division II National Championships. Ryan agreed to bring her back on board, and Coward trekked out the Bay Area to reunite with him.
Then, when Ryan moved back east to become an assistant at Alabama State University in the Summer of 2015, Coward moved back across country with him. She now trains at Alabama State’s campus in Montgomery .
Coward’s times have reached nationally impressive levels. She posted a career-best 12.73 in the 100 hurdles in 2014, and qualified for the trials with a 12.85 in April of this year (13.0 seconds is the qualifying time for the Olympic Trials in the women’s 100 hurdles).
But reaching the time she’ll need to get to Rio is more of a mental challenge than a physical one.
The Mental Game
“Physically, everybody out there is going to be ready to go,” Coward says. “What distinguishes the elite athletes from good athletes when it comes to trying to make this team is going to be mental.”
As a professional track athlete without a contract or endorsement, life is not easy. She trains five days a week with Charles Ryan while pursuing a master’s degree in counseling online via Liberty University. So she has had to rely on a generous network of family, friends and supporters to get herself to this point.
“I’ve been blessed to have people in my life who support me, who believe in this dream,” she says. “Being a professional athlete, people think we make a lot of money. Well, we don’t. To make a lot of money, you have to have a big contract or endorsements, and at this stage in my life, I don’t have that right now.”
“I call it the grind,” she says. “It’s what makes you the athlete you want to be.”
Should Jackie make Team USA, she would not be the first UCF Olympian, but she would be in rarefied air among former Knights as the first UCF track and field athlete to make Team USA.
Michelle Akers won the gold in Atlanta in 1996 as a member of the Women’s Soccer Team.
One of Jackie’s old teammates, Afia Charles, did go to the Olympics in 2012, but she represented her native Antigua and Barbuda.
Phil Dalhausser, another UCF alumnus is one of the most decorated American beach volleyball players of all time, but beach volleyball was not an NCAA sport when he attended UCF, and so he never actually wore the black and gold in NCAA competition. Dalhausser won gold in 2008 and is returning to the Olympics for a third time this summer.
The Field in Eugene
As John Crumpacker of TrackTown USA wrote in his preview of the women’s 100-meter hurdles field, “No event in the U.S. is as deep and top-heavy in talent, or as ever changing.”
Among those in the field are Brianna Rollins, who holds the American record holder at 12.26; Dawn Harper Nelson, a two-time Olympic medalist who won gold in Beijing in 2008 and the 2015 national crown; Keni Harrison, the 2015 NCAA Champion out of the University of Kentucky; and Nia Ali, the indoor champion in the 60-meter hurdles two of the last three years.
Just three of those four alone would be a formidable slate for Rio. But the other 29, including Jackie Coward, are just as capable of making it.
The U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials are set for July 1-10 in Eugene Oregon, with the 100-meter hurdles prelims beginning just after 8 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, July 7th. The semifinals and finals take place the next day, and are scheduled to be televised on NBCSN and NBC, respectively.
The Olympics in Rio begin on August 5th. So should Jackie best some of the fastest hurdlers in the country, she’d then test her mettle against the best hurdlers in the world in less than one month.
Then again, for Jackie Coward, it’s just another set of hurdles to pass.
“If I run the race I’m supposed to execute, there’s no doubt in my mind that I can do what I need to do to make this team,” she says. “I’m in a really good position right now. People believe in me, and that’s truly encouraging.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mentioned that Charles Ryan was the head coach of Alabama State. He is an assistant coach. The error has been corrected.