LEXINGTON — When Western Hills High graduate and current UK freshman Alisha Adair won the 200-meter final in 23.9 seconds and ran a 52.7, 4x400-meter relay leg at the Kentucky Relays April 18, she may have been the most surprised person in the stadium.
Her coach, Edrick Floreal, was the least surprised, however, even though Adair’s 200 time was nearly a second faster than she ever ran in winning five state 200 titles in high school (to go along with state crowns at 100, 400 and the 4x400 relay).
And her 400-meter relay split was nearly four seconds faster than her prep PR.
That kind of improvement, this quickly, is pretty much unheard of.
“It was really a surprise to me,” said Adair, one of the most decorated track athletes ever to come out of the Kentucky prep ranks. “That was a big confidence booster. I was really excited. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been waiting for this all year long.’”
So has Floreal, who is in the second year of a rebuilding project at Kentucky that has the Wildcats moving on to the national track and field radar with Adair-like speed, so to speak.
“I thought she’d run faster a lot sooner,” Floreal said of Adair. “After the 200, it was like, ‘Hey, I AM good’. And then she took the lead in the 4x4, and all of a sudden, it was like, ‘52.7? Wow.’
“We’d been trying to get her to run a 53, 52 something in the 4x4, but every time I mentioned those numbers, it was like, ‘But my best is 56 something.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care what your best is.’”
Floreal does not see these words as harsh, though they may come across that way on the surface.
“I think it’s just an idea that they have to embrace that they are gifted,” he said of freshmen. “I told her: ‘When we recruited you and signed you, I wasn’t doing anybody a favor.’ There’s talent there. There’s potential there.
“Sometimes they (freshmen) don’t see that ... they see themselves as Miss Average, until you tell them, ‘I don’t give (scholarship) money to Miss Average.’ There were expectations she wasn’t meeting because she didn’t believe she was good enough. I told her she was.”’
Adair suggested setbacks in her progress are due in part to the culture shock that comes from being the hunted in high school to running for a UK team that includes an NCAA star, even an Olympic-caliber sprinter, like junior Dezerea Bryant.
In a Southeastern Conference that’s a who’s who of national caliber athletes.
“Coming here has been a big adjustment,” Adair said. “The competitive atmosphere is completely different here. These girls are really, really fast. You go from high school, being No. 1, and then in college, I’m kind of at the bottom again.”
Adair said the adjustment extends off the track as well.
“Coach always makes sure that we understand that we are students first,” said Adair, an outstanding student. “Then there’s time management as far as making sure we get our tutor hours in. You go to practice, sometimes twice a day, and when you are there, you have to drop anything else on your mind and focus on why you are here.
“I have a strong coach who is here to push me, and I also have teammates at practice who are able to push me,” Adair added. “But when it comes down to it, it’s if I’m willing to be here, if I’m willing to work hard. If I’m willing to have hard days and come back the next day and do the same thing over again.”
Adair said her Kentucky Relays, coming-out party was due in part to the opportunity to run in front of a lot of familiar faces, family and friends, including her father Christian, who was her coach as far back as the fifth grade when she first got into the sport.
“Everyone was here to watch me, seeing what I could do coming here from Frankfort to UK, so I really had an adrenalin rush,” she said. “I knew I had to get out here and show everybody what I’m up here working on.”
Floreal said Adair’s performance was also due to her desire to compete for the Wildcats at the prestigious Penn Relays, April 24-26, in Philadelphia.
“That was a big deal to her,” Floreal said. “I told her, ‘If you run well here, then you’ll go.’ And she said, ‘What’s well?’ I said, ‘You have to break 24 seconds (in the 200), and run 11 something (in the 100), and then come back and run 53 something in the mile (4x400) relay.’ She said, ‘What if I come close?’ I said, ‘Then you won’t go.’”
Floreal stood by his word and ran Adair at the Penn Relays, though Adair tweaked a hamstring in the 4by4 preliminaries and was limited in what she could do.
“I didn’t get to compete in all the events I planned, though I’m fine,” Adair said. “But it was exciting to watch all that. It gave me motivation to get there next year and the year after to compete in front of all those people.”
Adair’s immediate goal is to compete in the SEC Championships taking place Thursday through Sunday at UK. Floreal said late this past week that he isn’t sure if he’ll put Adair in that pressure cooker just yet.
But the UK coach would be concerned if that was a setback to Adair’s confidence.
“I think she can probably be an All-American if she just puts her mind to it,” Floreal said. “And once she gets to that stage, then the next step is difficult. It demands even more attention to detail. The higher level you go, the more things you have to do right to do it.”
But Floreal is staunchly confident Adair has what it takes.
“I think it’s going to be relatively easy for her to get from where she’s at to the All-American stage,” he said. “It’s a work in progress.”
Said Adair: “I want to work hard because I want to succeed. And no one’s in control of that but me. And so there are hard days where (I feel like) I can’t do this. And I have to dig within myself and realize that I can. That this is the type of person I am. I’m a strong person. I’m driven.
“I want to be part of an SEC championship team, and I want to own an SEC title individually,” she added. “I want to go to the NCAA regionals and win, and I want to go to the NCAA (national meet).”
Adair then paused ever so briefly and added: “I want to be great.”