One of the defining characteristics of Harvard women’s track co-captain Brenda Taylor ’01 is that she knows how to finish strong.
Never was that more evident than at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships at Eugene, Ore. on Friday, when Taylor closed out her collegiate track career with a personal-best performance of 55.88 seconds in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles to win her first national title.
“It was the perfect race for me,” Taylor said. “I ran strong with the same mental preparation as always. The difference was that the second half of my race was much faster than it had ever been before.”
To complete an unprecedented weekend in the history of Harvard track and field, senior Dora Gyorffy convincingly won her first NCAA Outdoor title in the high jump with a peak performance of 1.90 meters. No one else in the country could clear any height past 1.84 meters.
“I’m pretty happy with my performance today,” Gyorffy said. “It’s a nice way to finish out my Harvard career.”
Taylor and Gyorffy’s victories earned Harvard a meet score of 20 points, which earned the team 12th place in the nation. The point total set a new record for Ivy track teams—male or female—at NCAAs. The national standing was second only to the 1989 Crimson women’s team, which placed ninth with 18 points.
USC, who won this year’s NCAA meet with 64 points, and Arizona, who placed third, were the only two schools other than Harvard to have two national champions.
Going into NCAAs, Taylor’s best time of 56.11 seconds from her Penn Relays victory placed her third on the national performance list behind Sheena Johnson of UCLA at 56.02 and University of Texas’ Angel Patterson at 56.09.
The 400 hurdles competition began with three semifinal heats on Wednesday, with Taylor winning the first heat in 56.64 seconds. Rice freshman Allison Beckford’s time of 56.39 seconds in the third heat was the best of the semifinals.
But in the surprise of the day, Johnson failed to earn one of the eight spots in the finals after placing second-to-last in the second heat.
“I still have no idea what happened to [Johnson],” Taylor said. “I guess she just ran a bad race.”
Johnson’s absence in the final left Patterson and Beckford as Taylor’s toughest competitors in the event. Beckford was the only collegiate athlete to beat Taylor head-to-head this season, but that race had occurred in March before the snow had even melted on the Harvard track.
Against Patterson in the Penn Relays, Taylor had pulled out a come-from-behind win, in which she passed Patterson on the final hurdle. That victory allowed her to feel more secure when Patterson took the early lead in Friday’s final.
“Penn Relays gave me a huge amount of confidence,” Taylor said. “When you’re competing against other athletes who are all at a very high level, you have to put it all together in one day.”
Taylor said her strategy was to stay close to Patterson until the final stretch while keeping ahead of Beckford.
“I was expecting the race to come down to me and Allison Beckford,” Taylor said. “She’s a lot like me. She starts slower, then really turns it on.”
When Taylor reached the backstretch and Beckford was still behind her, victory was in sight.
“When I got to my last hurdle, I was confident I had the momentum,” Taylor said. “When it was only Angel Patterson in front of me, I knew I was going to win.”
Taylor passed Patterson on the final hurdle, and accelerated down the backstretch. Beckford also passed Patterson in the final meters, but she could not catch up with Taylor. Beckford-who on Saturday became the NCAA’s 400-meet dash champion-placed second with a personal-best time of 56.22 seconds.
Taylor’s finish of 55.88 seconds was the best time run by an American this year and the sixth-best in the world. The strength of her Friday performance gives Taylor confidence going into the U.S. Track and Field Championships at the end of June.
“It’s going to be a new experience for me there, being a 55-second hurdler,” Taylor said. “That’s a barrier I’ve been trying to cross for a long time.”
Taylor will use her performance at the USATF Championships to gauge whether she can be competitive for a berth in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
“If I am successful [at nationals] it will determine what I do for the next four years,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s teammate and 2000 Sydney Olympian Gyorffy had a different set of goals going into her NCAA competition on Saturday. Although Gyorffy, like Taylor, had never won an NCAA Outdoor title, she was the heavy favorite going into the meet. No one else in the nation had cleared 1.90 meters, while Gyorffy’s personal best of 1.96 meters was the fourth-best jump in the world this year.
With the meet essentially already won, Gyorffy was focused more on breaking NCAA and Hungarian records than beating competitors.
“It was hard for her to get motivated,” said Harvard Coach Frank Haggerty. “It was cold, it rained a lot, so she came out early and took a few jumps to stay warm.”
Gyorffy did not miss a height until the bar was moved up to 1.87 meters, which she hit on her second try. After all her competitors failed to advance, Gyorffy struggled by herself with the 1.90-meter bar, missing on her first two attempts. But she cleared it easily on her third try and ignited a crowd full of 6,000 spectators.
“Her third jump was very good,” Haggerty said. “She had three of four inches of clearance.”
Gyorffy already owned a share of the NCAA Indoor record of 1.97 meters and was looking to clear that same height on Saturday, but she failed to clear on three tries. That height would have given her the NCAA Outdoor Championship record.
Haggerty said that the weather limited Gyorffy’s performance on Saturday.
“I don’t mean to make excuses for her, but it was definitely cold and rainy, and she had been out there for two and half hours already,” Haggerty said.
Gyorffy’s victory gave the Crimson an unprecedented double victory in the Indoor and Outdoor high jump by two different athletes. Sophomore Kart Siilats won the NCAA Indoor high jump title in March.
After Gyorffy and Taylor’s graduation, the Harvard women’s track team will be a different kind of team. This year’s senior class, including Gyorffy, Taylor and co-captain Marna Schutte, accounted for approximately 70 points in any given Heptagonal meet and all of Harvard’s NCAA points this past weekend.
“We go back to being regular coaches next year,” Haggerty said. “We coached well this year.”
Next year’s women’s track team will be captained by Carrie McGraw and Nicky Grant. McGraw has been highly competitive in the 400 hurdles and relays when healthy, and Grant is the school-record holder in the weight throw.
“Harvard will definitely be a new and different kind of team next year,” Taylor said. “We’ll continue to evolve. We have some amazing competitors, and I know that Nicky and Carrie will really motivate this team.”