After years of running the hurdles, Nicole Neighbors suddenly came to a realization last weekend during a workout with her father, Randy.
“I’m scared of them,” Neighbors admitted. “In a workout, my dad asked why I was jumping so far behind the hurdles. You’re not supposed to be scared of them. But I figured out [Sunday] after five years of running them that I am.”
That fear does little to deter Neighbors as she begins the march to what she hopes is a second straight trip to Austin in the 100 and 300 hurdle events. She began the season Thursday in her home meet with a victory in the 300 hurdles, running 50.21. She took second in the 100 hurdles in 18.09.
Last May at the University Interscholastic League Championships, Neighbors finished fourth in the 300 hurdles in 45.23. She was seventh in the 100 hurdles in 15.77.
“My goal is to get to state again,” Neighbors said. “There were a lot of good seniors last year. But it will be a dogfight again.”
While last year marked her debut on the track at state, it was not her first time running on the big stage. She’s made the state cross country meet three years, earning a pair of medals. She finished 10th this year, running a 12:05.07 on the 3,200-meter state cross country course.
“You don’t see that much,” said Decatur track and cross country coach David Park. He said Neighbors’ combination of talents as a hurdler and distance runner is rare.
“Obviously, she’s a complete athlete. It’s her will, especially in cross country, that makes her do so well. But it shows how much talent she has to be an elite hurdler.”
Some of that talent comes from being the daughter of a pair of state-qualifying athletes. Her mother, Sharon, won the 3A gold medal in the high jump while at Bridgeport in 1983. Her father ran the hurdles at state.
Of cross country and track, the latter is her favorite.
“I like cross country, but track is easier on the body and it’s a sprint and is more of a competitive rush,” Neighbors said. “On the track, your competition is right next to you. In cross country, they can be way behind you or in front.”
But Neighbors adds that her work in cross country helps her on the track.
“Cross country is all about endurance and hard work,” she said. “It teaches you the discipline to keep going.”
Those traits are important in the 300 hurdles, which Park calls a race of “will and mental toughness.”
Neighbors compares the 300 hurdles to the 800 and 400, which she ran in middle school.
“It’s one of the hardest races,” she said.
She prefers the longer race with lower hurdles.
“I like the 300 hurdles better because they’re easier for shorter people,” Neighbors said. “At state last year, all the people in the 100 hurdles were 10 times bigger than me.”
According to Neighbors, size or even speed is not what makes a good hurdler.
“It’s all about technique,” she explains. “Anyone that’s fast can run them, but you’ve got to be able to get over the hurdles fast. It matters how long you are in the air.”
Neighbors constantly works on her technique and has attended camps to help her. The additional training has not removed her fear of the hurdles, as she is quick to point out, but it has kept her upright until the finish line.
“I haven’t fallen in a race,” she said. “I’ve fallen in practice, but never in a race.”