The day before she left for the NCAA regional meet last week, Anna Layman went out for Chinese food.
“Don’t tell my coach that,” she pleaded. “That’s our secret.”
OK, sure, but back to the story: At the end of the meal came the fortune cookie which read, “Traveling south will bring you unexpected happiness.”
“Well, that’s kind of creepy,” she thought.
She was headed south – to Austin, Texas – with the rest of Washington State’s track and field team. The unexpected part threw her a little; eighth fastest among the entries at 800 meters, the junior from Spokane was certainly capable of generating some happiness in the form of being one of the 12 to advance to next week’s NCAA championships in Eugene, Ore.
Then events unfolded in Austin not just in unexpected but emotion-yanking fashion.
In the first round – technically the national quarterfinals – Layman struggled home sixth in her heat; the top three in each of six heats and the next six fastest finishers would move on.
“I thought there was no way I was going to make it,” Layman said. “I was crying like a little baby. I was devastated. The first thing I did, of course, was update my status on Facebook. Then one of my best friends texted me that I’d made it and then I started crying happy tears.”
She barely made it – the last of 24 qualifiers for the semifinals, just .04 of a second from being eliminated.
Talk about scared straight.
“I don’t care how bad it’s going to hurt,” Layman told herself, “I don’t want to have to go through that again.”
Sure enough, she won her semi in a season-best 2 minutes. 5.17 seconds – finding a seam along the curb to burst through when she’d been boxed inside most of the race.
“One of the girls from BYU veered off to the right,” she said. “I’m so small she probably didn’t see me.”
Now she finds herself in a mostly wide-open field in Eugene, a bonus in a year she entered with no honest expectation. A breakout freshman season saw her finish eighth at the NCAAs, but recurring shin splints derailed her in 2009, during which she also fought the emotional drain of her mother’s death. Debra Layman had fought diabetes and liver disease for years before finally succumbing in August 2008.
“For the longest time it didn’t even feel like she was gone,” Layman said, “and it really wasn’t until the (track) season came along that I really started to grieve.
“I do feel it’s made me stronger. Every time I run, I’m thinking of her. Before, she couldn’t physically be there to see me race, but I feel she’s watching me now. And even at the regional meet, it seems like someone was looking out for me – and now I have another day.”
The change from a four-regional system, sending the top five athletes in each event to nationals, to two megaregionals with 12 apiece qualifying seemed like it would take a higher toll on Northwest athletes. Increased competition from Big 12 and a few Big 10 schools suggested as much.
And sure enough, only six WSU athletes advanced – the smallest Cougars contingent to the NCAAs since 2004 and about half the school average. But Idaho qualified seven athletes – its most since 2004.
It may not matter. The revamped format may be history next year if NCAA leaders revert back to the old qualifying-by-time process.
Idaho pole vaulter Jeremy Klas of Moscow squeaked through the regional grinder with a school-record jump of 17 feet, 23/4 inches – becoming the first Vandals vaulter to qualify for the outdoor nationals since Dave Martindale won the event in 1952. … When WSU’s Jeshua Anderson ran 48.63 seconds to break the Pac-10 meet record for the 400-meter hurdles, it was the first men’s record to fall in the meet since 2004.