TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – It’s pushing midnight on a Friday and, in about 12 hours, Meme Jean is due to run in the 60-meter at hurdles at the ACC indoor track and field championships at Boston College.
Whereas someone else in her position might have long been in bed, Jean has set up shop in a hotel lobby, where she’s cashing in some free time to study for an upcoming test.
“What are you doing up so late?” FSU track coach Bob Braman said. “You’ve got a championship race tomorrow and you need your rest.”
“Can’t, Coach,” Jean replied. “Gotta study.”
So goes the balancing act for Jean, a fifth-year graduate transfer from Charleston Southern who is one of seven Seminoles competing at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships this week in Birmingham, Ala.
She’s a championship-level hurdler – a day after her late-night study session, Jean blew past her competition and won the ACC title in 8.11 seconds – and a grad student pursuing her master’s degree in criminology.
But before she’s a runner or a student, Jean is a mother.
He daughter, Ava Young, will celebrate her first birthday on March 27.
“I’m really good at organizing and planning,” Jean said.
Jean admits that with three major responsibilities on her plate, she wasn’t sure at first how she’d manage everything.
Ava, obviously, is the top priority, but the prospects of being a mother, a runner and a student taking 12 hours were daunting at first.
Which is where Braman and his staff came in.
“I saw things in her that made it worth our while to give her an opportunity, and she was grateful to have it,” said Brandon Hon, FSU’s director of sprints. “So I told her, ‘We’ll make it work.’ And I’m very impressed with how she’s managed it.”
“Making it work” mostly just translates to a lot of work and sacrifice on Jean’s part.
Ava was a fixture at FSU’s afternoon track practices throughout the fall semester, but she now splits time between Tallahassee and her grandmother’s house in Swainsboro, Ga.
After spending morning, noon and night with her daughter for the first several months of her life, Jean found that having Ava four hours away didn’t come easily.
“Her moving in a different state, away from me, that was really tough,” Jean said. “I miss her, I kind of go through withdrawal.”
But it’s hardly a permanent separation. Jean still sees Ava several times a month.
Besides, Jean views this time as a short-term sacrifice that will better serve her family in the future. Whether that comes from her accomplishments on the track or in the classroom.
“At times, I thought about dropping out,” she said. “I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t do this.’
“But I need to get a degree out of it and make my daughter proud.”
Jean already has her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Charleston Southern and is well on her way to receiving her master’s from FSU.
She is enrolled in four classes – “My advisor said I was insane” – and is on track to graduate in December.
“At first, it was all about Ava and competing,” Jean said. “But then I realized I can finish my degree by December of 2016, so why not?
“It’s tough, but I made it this far.”
Meanwhile, there’s the track.
Jean was already an accomplished hurdler before arriving at FSU, having won Big South Conference titles in the 60- and 100-meter hurdles in each of her three years at Charleston Southern.
But when she got to Florida State, Jean found a dramatic difference in competition.
“I’m up there with the big dogs,” she said.
It didn’t take long to find her bite.
Under Hon’s tutelage, Jean shaved .15 seconds off her personal best 60-meter time, from 8.23 seconds in 2014 to 8.08 now.
That’s well within range of both FSU’s school record (Teona Rodgers’ 8.07 seconds, set in 2009) and what she needs to have a chance to win a national title.
Purdue’s Devynne Charlton, the event’s No. 1 seed, has a best mark of 7.97.
“She has the physical tools to get it done,” Hon said. “But she also has the right attitude, where I can say, ‘Hey, that brick wall right there, I need you to run through it as fast as you can.’
“And she’ll do it.”
The NCAA Indoor season wraps up this weekend, but Jean has no designs on slowing down.
Outdoor season starts next week and, beyond that, Jean has an eye on qualifying for the 2016 Olympics Games.
It would be yet another challenge in a year full of them, but, as she’s shown time and again, clearing hurdles is what Jean does best.
“I tell myself God made me come this far,” she said. “I’m not going to back down. I’m not going to give up.”