by Elliott Denman
Some day, Jessica Beard will be a world-class dentist.
She'll attack cavities with the same ferocity she now attacks the 400 meters. But there's sure to be a world-class cavity in the USA Junior (19-and-under) ranks when she graduates to full-fledged Senior competition after the 2008 season.
The Finish Line USA Junior Championships, running June 20-23 at Indianapolis' Carroll Stadium, showcased the cream of the American scholastic crop arrayed against many of the best of the nation's collegiate freshmen, and even a handful of young sophomores. Sensations of the recently concluded high school season, many of them starring members of the Nike Outdoor Nationals cast, June 14-15-16 at Greensboro, NC's Irwin Belk Stadium, continued to be standouts running, throwing and jumping against their slightly-elders.
The list included such young scholastic celebrities as Jordan Hasay, Matthew Centrowitz, William Wynne, Johnny Dutch, Bryshon Nellum, Ryann Krais….and more.
One NON champion, Chanelle Price, even had the gumption to run in Senior Nationals and came through with a huge 2:02.38 seventh-place finish in the 800, moving her to third on the all-time USA high school list. Another HS great, Tori Anthony soared 14-0 1/4 to place ninth in the Senior National pole vault.
But no HS star was as dominant as Euclid, Ohio's Jessica Beard.
All the recent Euclid High graduate did was completely outperform a very solid field and win the Junior National 400 meters in 52.12 seconds. She got out fast and stayed out front at every checkpoint, literally running away from the field, gathering new strength down the finish straight while most of her pursuers were running out of gas.
University of South Carolina freshman Brandi Cross was a very clear second in 53.33. Lots of daylight shone through between Beard and Cross. It was her second consecutive win in the National Juniors, and - amazing but true ï¿½ completed an undefeated streak of over two years in high school/Junior racing in the U.S.
"Well, I knew I had to have a good start today," she said after earning the plaudits of Carroll Stadium fans and collecting her gold medal. "Last year, I had to play catch-up at the end and didn't want that to happen again. So I've been doing a lot of starts in practice, making sure that I got out well.
"I really don't know how to use those (internationally-calibrated starting) blocks just yet. I really don't know what it is about them. "I'm more of like a rhythm and speed type of runner, and then I'm strong at the end. "I try not to run the backstretch too hard, you know, so I don't use up too much in the first 200, and I have something left to pull away at the end.
"Today, I just tried to keep my form and bring it in." Did she ever ï¿½ as one of the most clearcut winners all day. Not since the Nike Outdoor Nationals of 2005 has she tasted defeat against another high school runner. That sophomore season she ran a close third at Greensboro in 52.93, just back of Florida's Brittany Jones (52.44) and California's Sa'de Williams (52.92.)
She took the 2006 NON crown in 52.04 - with Cross again second, this time in 52.65. The 2007 NON final went to Beard in a decisive 52.43, over South Carolina's Briana Nelson (53.74) and New Jersey's English Gardner (54.00.)
What a sizzling senior season she had. It started indoors - where she won the Nike Indoor Nationals 400 title at Landover, Md.in 55.24, no match for Francena McCorory's national record of 51.93 in the 2006 NIN but good enough to prove her dominance.
It gathered steam outdoors, where she raced to a fourth consecutive Ohio state crown in a meet-record 51.63, capping an incredible career in the Buckeye state, She'd won this one as a freshman in 55.36, as a sophomore in 53.47, as a junior in 53.58, and now as a senior.
In a jaunt to the Golden West Meet in Folsom, California, Beard easily sped to a meet-record 52.07 win over runner-up Erica Alexander's 54.42. "You hear all the time you can be beaten, so I came ready to run," she told an interviewer in Folsom. She'd also won the 2006 Golden West crown in 52.16, so the meet record she broke was her own. And that led to her 2007 exploits in Greensboro and Indianapolis.
But she's not done traveling - by a very long shot. The Indy win sends her to Sao Paulo, Brazil for the Pan American Junior Championships (July 6-8) as a leading American gold medal hope in both the individual 400 and the 4x400 relay. International Junior racing always gets her "psyched" to the sky.
Last August, at the World Junior Championships in Beijing, China, for instance. A fifth place 52.51 finish in the individual 400 there didn't exactly make her happy - even though she was running against athletes who might have been up to two years older.
So she and her American teammates made a much more emphatic statement in the concluding 4x400 relay. Beard ran leadoff, and Brandi Cross, Sa'de Williams and Nicole Leach did the rest as US's gold medal team crossed the line in 3:29.41 ahead of Nigeria, Jamaica, China, Russia and Germany.
The World Juniors, of course, are designed as an eventual warmup for the senior World Championships and Olympic Games. Since she won't reach her 20th birthday until January 8, 2009, Beard could have a crack at next year's World Juniors, scheduled July 8-13, in Byogoszcz, Poland, as well.
Then again, given her expected rate of progress, it might involve a tough call - run the Junior Nationals (in Columbus. Ohio) or "go for it" at the USA Olympic Trials (in Eugene, Oregon)?
In late summer 2007, she will be off to Texas A&M to join the powerful Aggie team coached by Pat Henry. The star-studded A&M recruiting class also includes celerbrated Raleigh sprinter Gabby Mayo, herself a gold medalist (in the 4x100 relay) at Beijing. Beard will be a biology major - first step to dental school. "We are elated to get both these young ladies in our group," said Henry.
Back at Indy, Beard was asked if all this winning puts pressure on her shoulders, the kind of pressure some young athletes have trouble handling."Not at all," she said. "It keeps me focused, it keeps me on my training. "I always have something to prove every time I get out there."
She owes her start in track to her 9th grade basketball coach, Scott Wilson. "Come on out for the track team, too," he urged as spring approached. She did just that - and has never looked back. At Euclid High, she was coached by Larry Nossey. A very big key, too, has been, the guidance of her club coach, Claude Holland of the Cleveland Heights Rebels.
Her busy schedule leaves little time for hobbies, but she puts "bowling, going to the movies, and just hanging out with friends" high on her list of non-track activities. Track's always a sport of evolving stages. At Indy, she got to share the same track as all the Senior Nationals greats, and told herself "I want to be like them some day."
On every stop along the high school circuit, though, there were young runners saying "I want to be like Jessica Beard some day."