By Sean Collins
Bringing your program national and global attention is always something that a coach aspires for. If a program is fortunate enough for that to happen, it means that somebody or a team is really good at what they do, which is obviously the goal. It also means free advertising.
For Director of Cross Country and Track and Field Fred Harvey, the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials and London Olympic Games ended up being a great recruiting pitch. It certainly caught the eye of sophomore Nnenya Hailey (pronounced kneen-yuh).
Hailey, who prepped Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, Ga., transferred to Arizona from Clemson in the summer of 2013. She was a highly successful hurdler prior to college, setting school records and winning Georgia state title.
Hailey also represented Team USA at the 2011 World Youth Championships in Lille, France. She earned a first-place finish in the final of the 400-meter hurdles with a personal-best time of 57.93. She also had the fastest semifinal time in the field, 58.44, and the fastest preliminary time at 58.71. She also competed at the 2012 USA Junior Championships.
Hailey was hampered by injuries during her first and only year at Clemson. Following the 2013 season, there was a coaching change that caused Hailey to rethink her collegiate career.
“My coach (Lawrence Johnson) left,” Hailey said. “He’s one of the best hurdle coaches in the country and he was not there anymore. The coach that they were bringing in wasn’t somebody I wanted to work with, so I asked my coach for some recommendations. He said Coach Harvey.”
Along with that recommendation, Harvey met one of Hailey’s high school coaches that worked with her on the club circuit. From there, Harvey spoke with Cecillia Hailey, Nnenya’s mother, and the rest is history.
Former Wildcat and current volunteer assistant coach Georganne Moline helped bring Hailey to Arizona without even realizing it. Moline’s run to a silver medal at the U.S. Olympic Trials and fifth-place finish London Olympics caught Hailey’s eye.
“What appealed to me first was Georganne,” Hailey said. “I watched her run and I was like, ‘oh, look at this girl run.’ I had never heard of her and she just came out of nowhere. I felt like, if he could train Georganne then he could train me. Good coaches can train good athletes that want to be great.”
Moline is just one of many athletes to arrive at Arizona not as highly regarded as some other recruits, but leaving as one of the best in the country. Development is something Harvey and the coaching staff focus on.
“I always hope that with all the student-athletes we recruit and their parents, that they see the progress these athletes at Arizona make over the course of their career,” Harvey said. “Looking at the progress rather than the glitz and glamour you get at other schools out there.”
Hailey and Harvey both envisioned Hailey having early success at Arizona; however, it came in a different way than originally anticipated.
“I knew she was going to be successful here,” Harvey said. “But the vision was for her to be successful at the 400-meter hurdles. If you look at her times, she never ran that fast in the 100-meter hurdles and 60-meter hurdles. So her success may have surprised some people, but not me. I know her and her work ethic, but the 400-meter hurdles is her main event.”
Hailey took third place in the 60-meter hurdles at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Championships.
She then represented Arizona in the same event at the NCAA Indoor Championships where she earned second-team All-America accolades. Her season-best time of 8.21 came in New York City at The Armory Collegiate Invitational where she took first place overall.
“I was so successful during indoors because of my determination and Coach Harvey,” Hailey said. “Last year, I pulled my hamstring so I felt like I was robbed of my outdoor season. So when I came here, I told myself that I had to go hard and that I needed to do better.”
Hailey was one of only 16 athletes to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships, and only one of four underclassmen in the event. Despite that, Hailey wanted to make the final of the 60-meter hurdles and score points for the women’s team.
“I really wanted to make the final,” Hailey said. “That was my goal, but I didn’t do that so it just makes me work harder. It just makes me hungrier because I know I can do better. At the same time, the 60-meter hurdles isn’t my main event; I’m a 400-meter hurdler. My mindset in the 400-meter hurdles is so different. That’s what I do, that’s what I like. It’s hard but it’s my bread and butter, it’s what I do.”
With Hailey’s versatility, Harvey has an issue that as a coach, he doesn’t necessarily mind at all.
“She is the type of student-athlete that I always want to have in a college program,” Harvey said. “You’re limited on the amount of scholarships you have. But, she can run a lot of different races for us. She can run the 100-meter hurdles, the 400-meter hurdles, the 4x100-meter relay and the 4x400-meter relay. But you need to be careful and not overuse her.”
“An ideal world for me would be to do the 400-meter hurdles and the 4x400-meter relay,” Hailey said. “But I always keep an open mind and Coach Harvey knows that I trust him and I’ll do what he tells me.”
On Saturday at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., Hailey will run the 100-meter hurdles and 400-meter hurdles along with the 4x400-meter relay. It will be the first time in the 2014 outdoor season that Hailey has hurdled at either distance.
“I’m kind of nervous,” Hailey said. It’s only Morgan (Struble) and I running from Arizona. I prefer to run with more people but I just have to go out there and do what I need to do. I mean, it’s Tracktown, USA.”
Track meets at Hayward Field are unlike meets anywhere else in the U.S. They have great attendance at every meet and the fans cheer for everybody, not just Oregon’s athletes.
“I’m really excited; I’ve never run at Hayward Field before,” Hailey said. “The travel is kind of rough, but I know I’ll be okay. Going to Tracktown is going to be fun. I’ve heard it’s supposed to rain. It is what is, that’s where the NCAA Championships are, so if it rains, it rains.”
Hailey has long and short-term goals set for herself and knows what she wants to accomplish, most of them have been in her mind since the fall.
“Every year, before we start fall training, I write my goals on my mirror so I see them every morning,” Hailey said. “On my mirror right now, it says “54.5,” which is my goal for the 400-meter hurdles this year. My goal going into this weekend is just to set a personal best.”
She has had some setbacks in her career due to injuries but that has not stopped her from setting the bar high for herself.
“I haven’t run the 400-meter hurdles in two years," Hailey said. “I had hip surgery and then I pulled my hamstring. I won the World Junior Championships with 57.9 so I would like to be at 56.9 or around there. I want to win the Pac-12 Championships, too; that’s on the mirror. I also want to make it to the NCAA Championships, the final of the NCAA Championships in the 400-meter hurdles. Then, the end goal is to run at the 2016 Olympics.”
Hailey plans on sticking with Harvey over the long haul and he doesn’t seem to mind one bit.
“She’s a joy,” Harvey said. “She’s one of the most competitive and intense individuals that I’ve ever worked with.”