By REID TUCKER
Chris Sanders had about as good a first year as can be had by a Division 1 collegiate athlete, earning a podium position at the Conference USA outdoor track and field championship.
Sanders, a class of ’11 South Walton graduate, who now competes for Rice University of Houston, Texas, finished fourth or better in seven of each of the 10 events in the decathlon and made it into the top eight of the remaining three events. Sanders’ team mate, Clayton Chaney, took first place overall in “the dec,” which wrapped on May 13.
His first place finishes include the high jump with a 6-04 mark and the shot put with a 40-11 throw. He also had two second-place finishes (discus, 120-07; javelin, 170-07) and two third-place finishes (long jump, 22-09; 110-meter hurdles, 15.39 seconds), while finishing fourth in the 1,500-meter run, which he completed in 4:51.49..
This performance is exemplary for several reasons, not least of which is that, though he transferred to Rice as a sophomore, Sanders nevertheless had to deal with all the stresses of college life as only a person in their first year away from home understands. Sanders said striking a balance between his studies and training was the most challenging, as Rice, one of the top 20 academic universities in America, expects a lot from its students, athletes or not. However, Sanders attributed his improvements in several events and successes across the board to the maturity he discovered while finding the happy medium between academics and athletics.
“I got to college and I learned more about growing up, like, ‘now it’s time for me to be a man,’” Sanders said. “When that happened my technique starting coming together and I focused a lot on my training and then I saw the results. Every week I’d get better and better and better. It ended up being a great year. A lot of my events have shot up and I hopefully I can just keep that rolling.”
Maintaining momentum will be crucial for Sanders, whose next challenge is to compete at the USA Junior Outdoor Track and Field Championships, to be held from at Indiana University June 15-17. The top two male and female competitors in each event will qualify for a place on the national team, which will travel to Barcelona, Spain, for the 2012 International Association of Athletics Federations’ World Junior Championships, reserved for athletes under the age of 19.
Joining Sanders at the qualifying meet will be training partner Jessie Harrison, herself a Seahawk track athlete. Harrison earlier this month signed a scholarship with Liberty University, another Division-1 school famed for its track and field program. She hope to improve her score in several decathlon events and gain valuable experience for when she too faces her first test of collegiate competition come fall.
In the meantime, both Sanders and Harrison will spend their summer training with longtime private coach Willie Parker, who daily puts the athletes through their paces. Over the course of doing the interviews for this story, Parker had Harrison running hurdles while Sanders threw first the discus then the javelin, and both would later do a 400-meter running workout. The aim, Sanders said, is to simultaneously target the areas of his and Harrison’s game that need improvement while also reinforcing what works for them.
Sanders’ throwing and jumping events saw a big improvement, even, he said, getting “phenomenally better” in the past year, so he’ll be keying in on running in an effort to bring in the points from those higher-scoring events. He said his goal for the summer is to qualify for the USA junior team, but if that plan falls through he’ll return home to Walton County for more training. The competition will be tight between Sanders and the other entrants at the upcoming meet, but he feels that his focus on training and drive will pull him through.
“It’s really going to come down to who wants it the most at the end of the day,” Sanders said. “I just want to go out there and do my best. As long as I score what I think I can and I know I can, I’ll be happy. If I don’t make the team, so be it. I really think that if I put my best effort forward I have a great chance of making the team.”