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ASU track & field gears up for 20th annual Alice Coachman meet

Albany State’s Irrion Conaler and her teammates plan to put on a show for the home fans Saturday during the 20th annual Alice Coachman Track & Field Invitational, which will take place at the Robert Cross Track & Field facility at ASU. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Albany State’s Irrion Conaler and her teammates plan to put on a show for the home fans Saturday during the 20th annual Alice Coachman Track & Field Invitational, which will take place at the Robert Cross Track & Field facility at ASU. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — Jordan Thompson stepped off the beach and onto the track.

He wasn’t alone.

Nearly the entire Albany State track & field team returned from spring break Thursday and immediately started practicing and training for their first home meet of the season — Saturday’s 20th annual Alice Coachman Invitational.

“They came off the road (and came straight to practice),” ASU coach Ken Taylor said during Thursday’s practice. “Some of their cars are still packed. Some of them stopped at a (rest stop), got changed and came straight to practice.”

Thompson, a sophomore who is one of the team’s top hurdlers, was one of those who took his conditioning with him to the beach, where he would work out twice a day next to the ocean.

Looking Ahead

WHO: ASU track & field athletes and athletes from a host of other Division I and II schools.

WHAT: 20th annual Alice Coachman Invitational Track & Field meet.

WHEN: Begins with field events at 8 a.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Robert Cross Track & Field facility at Albany State.

“There were people out there running and jogging, but I was the only one sprinting super fast,” Thompson said. “I would do my sprints right there along with the little kids playing football.”

Thompson is one of several ASU athletes who will be looking for top finishes at Saturday’s meet — which is named after Albany native Alice Coachman-Davis, who was the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

It’s a special meet for everyone at ASU, especially Taylor, who has been friends with Coachman for years.

“Because I know her personally, it’s good to pay tribute to someone who had the accomplishments she did back during a time when women weren’t the highlight of track and field, and more importantly black women weren’t a highlight in track and field,” Taylor said. “And even more importantly, she went to nations where women and black women weren’t important in track and field and had the accomplishments she did. That’s what makes me feel good about the opportunity to do this meet in her name.”

Coachman, who made history and gained international attention by capturing the high-jump title and world record during the 1948 Olympic Games in London, won 10 consecutive U.S. titles in the high jump and national titles in the 50- and 100-meter dashes and 400-meter relay team.

Taylor said that Coachman, who is now 88 years old, used to come to the meet but hasn’t made an appearance in several years.

“I don’t know if her daughter is going to try to bring her over Saturday,” Taylor said. “I would certainly love to see her, if nothing else so she can sit there and wave to people with that beautiful smile she has.”

It’s also a special meet for Thompson, who set personal and school records with a 52.21 in the 400-meter hurdles at last year’s Alice Coachman Invite.

“Last year was a beautiful day, and I knew a few other 400 hurdlers coming from other schools, and we were talking trash on Twitter and Facebook,” Thompson said. “This was my home meet and home track, so I had to bring it.”

That’s the attitude the whole team seems to be bringing into Saturday’s meet, which gives ASU a chance to compete in front of friends and classmates.

“We are comfortable here. I know the curves, I know the straights and everything,” sprinter Untayous Benson said. “It puts a smile on my face when you look toward the finish line and see the fence you see at practice every day. It’s about the environment and having people here that you know. Running at home is a whole lot better.”

Several ASU athletes, including Benson and Thompson, are among the favorites at the meet. CreeAnn Perkins, who recently broke the school record in the discus and is about a foot away from breaking the school record in the shot put, is already on the qualifying list for nationals.

Brittany Carter, who was one of just a few ASU runners who stayed home during spring break to continue normal conditioning, was a second away from qualifying for the nationals last year in the 800 and is working toward getting to that level this season in the 800 and 1,500. Irrion Conaler, who also stayed on campus for spring break, is poised to set records in the 400 hurdles, while Isaiah Leggette is already on the nationally qualifying list in the triple jump and is on the brink of qualifying in several other events.

ASU will be joined by three other teams Saturday — the Stillman men and women and the Morehouse men — but the field is loaded with premiere runners unattached to universities who are looking to earn a spot on the next Olympic team.

“For a lot of them it will actually be their first meet on their training schedules. Most of them want to start peaking in May, June and July so they won’t run early meets,” Taylor said. “A lot of them like to make their debut at a low-profile meet, like this one. It’s not at Atlanta. It’s not under the lights. It’s not at Florida State or the University of Florida. It’s a less-threatening environment for them to come out and see where they are.”

The hammer and javelin throws will kick off the meet at 8 a.m. at the Robert Cross Track & Field facility at ASU, while the rest of the event will resume at 11 a.m. in two different locations. The men’s and women’s 3,000 steeplechase will be held at Hugh Mills, and the rest of the running and field events will be at the ASU complex.