Jessica Beard: One Lap Warrior by Dave Hunter, note by Larry Eder

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Jessica Beard, photo by PhotoRun.net

Dave Hunter wrote this piece about Jessica Beard, a fierce 400 meter runner, whose time came in Moscow 2013, with her firs leg of the 4 x 400 meter relay.....

Jessica Beard:  One Lap Warrior

September 15, 2013

Even the casual fan of track & field is acquainted with the marquee stars of our sport - the Galen Rupp's, the Allyson Felix's, and the like.  But the more fervent followers - those who dig a little bit deeper - get to know and appreciate the excellent performers who are just slightly removed from the limelight.  These are the athletes who teeter at the brink of more visible stardom but who nonetheless toil in relative anonymity.

One such track & field athlete is 400 meter runner Jessica Beard.  The Ohio native, still just 24 years old, has shown she is a versatile long sprinter with the demonstrated ability to step up her game at each progressive level of competition.  As a young athlete at Euclid High School, Dave_Hunter_Right_On_Track.pngBeard ran the table with 4 big-school state titles in the 400.  Her 2006 senior year clocking of 51.63 - making her that year's 13th fastest American woman - lowered the state record by a whopping 2.64 seconds.  During her high school days, the young star built strength in the off season by - of all things - running cross country!  "I ran cross country because it helped me develop a breathing pattern," says Beard.  "I enjoyed cross country, but why do you all do this to yourself?" the long sprinter laughingly inquires.  "The 5K is worse than the 400."

After her Ohio successes, Beard dashed off to Texas A&M where she rang up 4 glorious years at College Station.  Along the way, the Aggie star lowered her 400 P.R. to 50.56 and shined as a two-time medalist in World Junior 400 competition.  Few who witnessed it will ever forget her plucky performance in the 2009 USATF outdoor 400 final when the then-20 year old - running blind in lane 8 - uncorked a gutty stretch drive to finish 3rd and make her first national team.  She finished her A&M career with a storybook senior season which saw her capture a total of 4 individual or team NCAA crowns and win the Bowerman Award - the Heisman-like trophy presented annually to the top collegiate male and female track & field athletes.  "It was awesome.  I was so nervous," explains Beard.  "I couldn't believe I was a finalist along with [LSU sprinter] Kimberlyn Duncan and [Arkansas pole vaulter] Tina Sutej.  So where is that unique trophy now?  "It's at the A&M indoor track in a trophy case," adds Beard.  And with a smile she adds, "But Coach Henry has ordered a duplicate for the school so I can have mine."

As a young professional athlete running for adidas, Jessica Beard began 2011 with promising expectations.  Her indoor 400 mark of 50.79 was the world leader. She once again made the U.S.A. world championship squad and was part of the team effort which won the 4 x 400 relay in Daegu.  Beard's 2011 world championship relay gold medal paired up perfectly with the 4 x 400 relay gold she had won in Berlin just two years earlier.  

But a late season right Achilles tweak in 2011 revealed a masked season-long malady that would require attention.  The exposed injury - a more serious right Achilles tear - mandated enforced idleness from October '11 until February '12.  It proved to be an Olympic year setback Beard couldn't overcome.  "2012 was a tough year for me," admits Beard. Always a warrior, she soldiered on.  At the Olympic Trials, a frankly unprepared Beard worked her way through the rounds to make the final - but she had nothing left.  In the final, the adidas athlete finished out of the money - missing the top 6 and a spot in the relay pool.  "My coach [Vince Anderson] and my agent [Mark Wetmore] were concerned about the rounds.  I didn't want to use my injury as an excuse, because a lot of people go through things and you just have to try to get through it.  That was really hard for me because I never had an injury all through college. If I could have just finished 6th, I could have gone [to London]."  

Beard's disappointing - but abbreviated - 2012 season fostered the recovery the 400 runner needed to perform better in 2013. Showing promise in the early season relays and other races, Beard came to the Des Moines championship meet healthy.  Not peaked for the late June USA championships, Beard - 5th in the 400 final in 51.06 - made the relay pool and the team for Moscow.   

In championship meets, it is always good to have experienced and unflappable veterans like Beard in the relay pools.  In Moscow it proved to be doubly so when Allyson Felix - form charted to run the 4 x 400 final  - went down with an injury in the 200 final. All eyes turned to Beard to fill the unexpected lineup vacancy.  Could Beard - originally scheduled to run only the prelim race - be ready?  "I really kind of found out the day before - the day after Allyson had gotten hurt," offers Beard in explaining how she found out about her 11th hour call to duty.  "Originally I wasn't going to run the final.  But I split a 49.7 in the prelim and then they decided to reconsider it." The USA coaching brain trust made the right move.  With squad leader and marquee performer Felix suddenly on the sidelines, the call went to Beard - the experienced world-stage relay specialist - to set the tone and lead off for Team USA.  "It's funny because no one really wanted to run first.  They wanted to keep Fran [McCorory - who anchored the USA's gold medal quartet in Daegu] last because she is the only person with really good experience on the anchor.  The coaches told me, 'At Penn you ran first and did well, so you could do it again.'  I had run a couple of leadoff legs this year, so I thought 'well, I guess I can do it.'"  

It was the right move.  Running a sterling opening leg of 50.68, Beard gave Natasha Hastings the lead she needed to grab the pole on leg two.  The Russian women - aided by a little third leg trickery to box USA novice Ashley Spencer - ultimately came back to win the gold.  But the USA 4 x 4 squad - in disarray less than 48 hours earlier - had  rallied behind Beard's inspiring leadoff leg to get up for the silver.

At the w4 x 400 award ceremony in Moscow, Jessica Beard had an opportunity to display her stylish, playful side.  Dressed in her tailored USA sweats, Beard joined her teammates on the podium sporting a poofed-up pillbox hairdo. Smiling as she received her silver medal, Beard looked like the happiest, most athletic hipster you'll ever see.  "I didn't do it for any of my races, but I had done my hair like that during the summer," explains an excited Beard.  "Jason Richardson told me, 'Hey, you should do it like Janelle Monae does so it comes up higher in the front.'"   Beard went to work to replicate the stylish singer's haute coiffeur.  "I spent hours in the bathroom working it out.  I did it a couple times during practice camp and I thought, 'I'm good to go!'"

The vast majority to world class athletes hung up their spikes after the Moscow championship meet.  Not Beard.  Her relay performances in Moscow inspired her to squeeze in one more open race.  "I felt that if could run 50 point off the lead-off leg, I felt I could race a really good open 400.  I just kept telling my agent, 'One more!'  But of course everyone wanted to run Brussels, so nobody wanted to give up their lane. So I went to Italy."  The pilgrimage to Padua was worth it as Beard closed her season with season-best 51.05.

A look back on Beard's athletic resume reveals - at whatever level - she has always been able to rise up to compete with the very best.  Her flirtation with the medal stand continues as Jessica Beard patiently works to develop the right formula to mount the podium.   It begs the question:  what will it take for her as a professional to rise up once again?

"I think the biggest thing now is just to really go with the new year that is coming in," the 400 veteran explains.  "I now feel that this upcoming year is finally going to be my year. I have my rhythm back in my races.  So really it is just about executing."  Beard reflects on some additional benefits of her recent summer abroad and on her own.  "I pretty much stayed in Europe all summer and it pretty much matured me a lot.  I had to grow up," Beard confides.  "I was so used to being under my coach's guidance.  I learned how to be out on my own.  And I had to find my own comfort zone.  That's what this season taught me."  Beard also took more away from Moscow than just a silver medal.  "On the leadoff leg in the world championship 4 x 400 final, I didn't have a chance to think about myself or how I should run it.  I just ran.  Now that I've done that and just prepared myself mentally, I definitely can do that in my open race.  It gave me a lot more confidence, especially coming off the disappointing year I had in 2012.  I had to prove that to myself."  Seemingly unfazed by the long grind of the recently-completed outdoor season, the one-lap specialist sounds eager for 2014.  "I now have that hunger and thirst.  I'm healthy and if I stay confident, I know I can do it. I just have to go out there and do it.  And with an air confidence, Beard adds, "I am ready to boldly approach any race."

As Beard's progression continues, there are small but important clues that perhaps offer a glimpse into the quarter-milers' future - full recovery from a nagging Achilles issue; a sterling leadoff leg coming off the bench the in the world championship 4 x 400 final; and a determined late season best 400 mark in Italy.  These may well be indications that Jessica Beard is now ready to step out of the shadows, into the footlights, and onto the medal stand.  

~Dave Hunter

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