TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Returning to campus Sunday from the three-day USATF Junior Outdoor Championships with silver medals, suitcases full of gear and plane tickets to Finland next month is a fitting payoff for Florida State’s Cortney Jones and Jayla Kirkland.
As teenage All-Americans, there is no debating the track & field duos’ physical gifts. They are the youngest of five Noles who combined for 25 points and a 14th-place finish at the NCAA Outdoor Championships; all of whom return next season.
It’s the journey to Finland’s Tampere Stadium, site of the IAAF World U20 Championships (July 10-15), which sets the Team USA Seminoles apart.
Jones, seven months removed from knee surgery, will compete in the 100-meter hurdles. The Conyers, Ga. native, who was third at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, ranks second in the World among Juniors (12.86). She finished second to Tia Jones (12.89-12.91) in Saturday’s USATF final at Indiana University, taking down World Junior leader Chanel Brissett (12.95) for the final spot on Team USA.
It will be Jones’ first time representing the United States internationally, and Kirkland’s third.
Qualifying in the 200-meter dash, Kirkland will be making her first international appearance since suffering a hamstring injury back in 2016. She advanced to the final as the No. 2 qualifier with a personal-best 22.93 – the eighth-best Junior time in the World – and was second to Oregon’s Lauren Williams (22.84-22.91w) in Sunday’s final. It was a major breakthrough for the leadoff runner on FSU’s All-American 4×100 relay, whose career has been full of starts and stops due to recurring hamstring issues since the conclusion of her junior season at Woodlawn High in Birmingham, Ala.
“They’ve also had so many injuries and extreme interruptions in their training this whole year,” said Brandon Hon, FSU’s Director of Sprints, Hurdles & Relays. “That alone typically drains these kids, especially considering how young they are. To deal with those interruptions in training, the injuries and ups and downs, a lot of times those kids check out.
“That was really rewarding to see them stay focused, keep their composure and realize how much this opportunity for them means.”
At a time of year when many collegiate athletes are desperately clinging to peak fitness, Jones and Kirkland appear to be rounding into top form in time to be serious medal contenders. In each case it’s a testament to their perseverance.
“It was really important for me, especially since this was the last year for me to do it,” said Jones, who placed fourth in the 100 hurdle finals at the 2017 USATF Junior Championships. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. I’m proud I was able to do it and continue my season.”
Since finishing second to Georgia Tech’s Jeanine Williams at the ACC Outdoor Championships, after dropping a wind-aided 12.93 in the semifinals – her first sub-13 reading – Jones has been on a steady ascent. Seeded seventh, the Seminole sophomore qualified third out of the NCAA East Preliminary, then dropped her monster wind-legal 12.86 in the NCAA Championship semifinals. The No. 13 seed entering the meet, Jones ran 13.04 in a driving rain for her third place finish; the top finish in the event in program history.
In addition to breaking 13 seconds, Jones has beaten Williams twice in head-to-head match-ups since her ACC loss; two significant confidence-feeding factors.
“Beating Jeanine back-to-back was something that was good to me, because it doesn’t matter [as much not] winning an ACC Championship if I can get an NCAA medal or make a World Junior team, that’s something that’s bigger and better,” said Jones, who said her semifinal round effort at the NCAA Championships marked the transcendent moment in her season.
“That’s where I felt everything was coming together,” Jones said. “‘I’m back. I’m here and I’m making a name for myself.’”
Lingering hamstring issues prevented Kirkland from beginning her outdoor season in earnest until late April.
“My injuries were recurring, so it was kind of hard for me to see where I’d be in the next month,” Kirkland said. “Basically, throughout my whole journey, I had to keep a strong mindset and know that I am able to be as good as I was my junior year of high school, before my injury.
“It’s definitely hard to deal with, especially coming into college as a freshman. I went through so much just to get to this point. I had to continue to be positive and I’ve always been mentally strong. I had to feed off my teammates’ success and be proud of them, knowing that my time would come soon.”
Kirkland slowly began to round into form, placing fourth in the 100 and sixth in the 200 at the ACC Championships. Two weeks later she posted a personal-best in the 100 (11.34) and a season-best in the 200 (23.35) in the quarterfinal rounds at the NCAA East meet, but came up short of qualifying for the NCAA Championships as an individual.
Still, the 22.93 windy first round effort at the NCAA East meet, provided a shot of confidence moving forward.
“I’ve always gone out there saying, ‘If you can run it windy you can run it without the wind,’” she said. “It kind of motivated me going into my next competition to go hard and try to run 22.”
Her progress continued on the Noles’ 4×100 at the NCAA Championships, where she led off the semifinal round 43.33 – No. 3 all-time at FSU – to help the team advance to the finals, where they placed eighth.
“A lot of those milestones can become mental barriers,” Hon said, when asked about the importance of breaking acknowledged standards of excellence. “Even though you know you have it in you and you’re trying so hard to execute in each race, until you actually see those times come on the board with your name associated with it, it can be frustrating.
“We hate talking about times and we try not to focus on that, but you also can’t ignore in in our sport either. It does become a big mental barrier for a while, so once you do break through that barriers, the floodgates tend to open.”
Jones and Kirkland emerged from the NCAA Championship refreshed and ready for more.
“The carryover from the NCAA’s was great,” Jones said. “My body felt great. Compared to last year, it was so much better. Last year I was drained. I was done. I didn’t really want to be at a track meet…I wanted to keep going and make the team.”
“I was ready to run fast,” Kirkland said. “I felt good. My body felt good and I just had to prove to myself that I could go sub-23.”
Kirkland did that in back-to-back heats and carries that momentum into the World Junior Championships, where she has designs on medaling, just as she did at the 2015 World Youth Championships in Cali, Colombia with a bronze in the 100-meter dash.
“It’s always an honor to represent my country,” said Kirkland, who will have an opportunity to make amends for her last appearance in a red, white and blue uniform. The 2016 USATF Junior champion in the 200, Kirkland was injured before the prelims at the World Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
“I had treatment and just tried to see if I could just finish the race,” said Kirkland, who hobbled home last in her heat. “It didn’t turn out like I hoped it would turn out. I can redeem myself now.”