T&F seniors make most of NCAAs

June 9, 2017

By Zac Ellis

EUGENE, Ore. – The sun peeked over the monstrous grandstands of Oregon’s Hayward Field on Thursday evening as Courtney Clayton, Vanderbilt’s senior middle-distance sprinter, passed the midway point of her 800-meter race at the NCAA Track & Field Championships. Clayton had fallen to the back of the pack in the third heat of the 800. With mere seconds remaining, her shot at advancing to the NCAA finals appeared bleak.

That’s when Clayton turned on the jets. She launched by several fellow runners with renewed life, making the most of a final but defining stretch.

“I trusted myself,” Clayton said. “The last 300 I started to move, then I just gave everything I had in that last 100.”

Clayton’s second wind propelled the senior from seventh place to third, where she finished with a time of 2:04.24. That time served as the third-fastest in all three heats and secured Clayton a spot in Saturday’s finals among the top eight competitors.

For a senior who had never participated at the NCAA Championships, Clayton made clear she wasn’t ready to return to Nashville.

“Today is just everything I could have hoped for,” Clayton said. “This is the big show. It feels great because I knew all I had to do was go out there and run my race, I did.”

Clayton was not the only Commodore to shine during her trip to Eugene. Vanderbilt senior pole vaulter Sarah Bell managed to clear the bar at 4.00 and 4.15 meters. Though she ultimately fell short of the finals, Bell joined Clayton in earning First Team All-America honors, the first Vanderbilt teammates to land All-America status at outdoors since 2004. That year, Josie Hahn and Erika Schneble were recognized nationally in the heptathlon and 5000-meter run, respectively.

Afterwards, Bell said she held few regrets as she reflected on her stay at NCAAs.

“You can’t be disappointed coming here and being able to compete in the first place,” Bell said. “It definitely wasn’t the height that I wanted, but I’d be happy to go out on this note at outdoors. I really couldn’t ask for more. A First Team All-America, top eight in the country -- it means a lot.”

Clayton’s come-from-behind strategy in the 800 semifinals was an approach concocted with the help of Vanderbilt assistant coach Donnie Young. Clayton used a slow first 400 to save her energy for the back half of the race, just as she did at NCAA Regionals in Lexington, Ky. The result was a late surge and a trip to Saturday’s finals race.

“We talk about it all the time in our sports,” Young said. “You don’t get a halftime, you don’t get a timeout, you’ve got to be on that day. Courtney has had the ability. Now she’s finally showed that she can do it.”

Now, Clayton is ready for more.

“I would say I’m not exactly where I want to be, but given everything, I’m super happy with how it’s played out,” she said.

Clayton faces off in the finals of the 800 on Saturday at 6:45 p.m. (CT) at Hayward Field.
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