Many students experience a range of highs and lows throughout their collegiate career, and recent Northern Arizona University graduate Ashley Taylor is no exception. A runner on the track and field team, her athletic career was a bit of a roller coaster, lurching from the thrill of early success to the agony of a deflating illness and back to the joy of redemptive triumph. She now looks to turn lessons learned from this range of experiences into a career helping others.
Taylor grew up in Canada and came to NAU in 2014, recruited by then-director of Cross County and Track Eric Heins to run on the track team. She chose NAU over several other schools largely because of the quality of the team’s coaching staff, as both people and coaches. She loved the charm of Flagstaff and felt an instant connection to NAU because one of her high school friends went here.
In her freshman year of track, Taylor specialized in the 400-meter hurdles and quickly found success, winning the Big Sky Conference outdoor championship while setting a school record. This was heady stuff for a freshman and the future seemed full of promise, but the next couple of years didn’t follow the trajectory that Taylor might have envisioned after this early tantalizing success. The so-called sophomore jinx hit her the following year as she fell sick and was not able to train as normal. She ended up redshirting that year, meaning she sat out of competition.
She returned the following year and again won a conference title. Despite this success in the rankings, her time was no better than that of her freshman year. As someone who measures success by her own growth, this was unacceptable. “I wasn’t progressing and began losing self-confidence, something that was always critical to my success.”
She soon became unhappy and realized she had to make a change in order to get back onto a positive path. Struggling for an answer, she talked with her coaches and began dabbling with the 800-meter run. The change would prove life altering.
Taylor still ran the shorter races in her third year, but for her final year of competition she switched completely to the 800. “It was tough, humbling work, but I enjoyed it because I could see progression. I was strong, confident and much happier, because I could see myself doing better.”
During the indoor season, she knocked an astounding six seconds off her personal best time. She then set her sights higher than a conference championship; she wanted to compete at the nationals. The top 16 runners qualified for nationals, and she hovered around 13th or 14th for most of the season. Unfortunately, she dropped a few places by the end of the year and found herself at 18th. She figured she had missed fulfilling this dream, but two of the runners ahead of her dropped out and so she moved up to 16th, the final person to qualify.
At the national championships in Texas, Taylor rose to the challenge and won her preliminary race. In the final, she found herself in last place with just a couple hundred yards to go but saw an opening and, with a tremendous finishing kick, passed most of the field to finish fourth. She was an All-American, one of the top runners in the entire country. The following spring she did herself one better, finishing in third place at the outdoor championships.
Looking back on her NAU career, Taylor reflects, “The tough time with hurdles humbled me, but it was kind of a blessing in disguise. I learned from it and realized you can never take anything for granted. It also showed me that nothing comes easy.”
Taylor graduated earlier this year, majoring in exercise science and minoring in chemistry and psychology. She is now working on her master’s degree in human relations at NAU and also plans to earn a certificate in women and gender studies.
Currently, she works as a Life Skills graduate assistant and trains twice a day, now as a professional runner. Her ultimate goal is to help people, using the experiences of her athletic career at NAU to serve as a role model and maybe even a coach.
“I have learned a lot of life experiences through track. I was having problems and responded by making a change that rekindled my motivation, focus and determination. It really shows that if you put your mind, heart, energy and dedication into something, you can do anything you want.” FBN
By Kevin Schindler, FBN