An unbeatable track record | ParkRecord.com

An unbeatable track record

Alisha Self, Of the Record staff

As a kid, Chelsea Shapard dreamed of becoming an Olympic athlete. She imagined standing on the podium, medal in hand, soaking up the sensation of victory. What she didn’t imagine was that instead of hurtling down snowy slopes toward the finish line, she’d be hurdling down the track.

Even in high school, Shapard hadn’t changed her mind about her sport of choice. She was fast on and off the snow, but she chose to focus her attention on ski racing rather than running. It wasn’t until a family friend convinced her that she could get a track scholarship to college that she considered trading in her ski boots for running shoes.

"I wanted to go to college to be a ski racer or a soccer player," she said. "If you had told me four-and-a-half years ago that I was going to run my way through college, I would’ve laughed in your face and said, ‘Yeah, right.’"

But that’s exactly what she did. Shapard attended Weber State University and later the University of Utah on full scholarships for the 400-meter hurdles, an event she had only competed in six or seven times by the time she graduated from Park City High School. On May 8, she graduated from the University of Utah, but she won’t be retiring those running shoes anytime soon.

A week and a half ago, the 22-year-old took a step closer to her childhood dream just not quite the way she envisioned it at the Division 1 Mountain West Conference Track and Field Championships in Laramie, Wyo.

Shapard sprinted to first place in the 400-meter hurdles for the third year in a row, contributed to third- and fifth-place team relay finishes, and broke two University of Utah records along the way.

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Shapard ran her specialty event, the 400 hurdles, in 57.88 seconds, finishing almost two seconds and nearly 15 meters ahead of her closest opponent. She broke the school record that she set last year (58.07) and improved her regional qualifying mark by three-tenths of a second. Shapard is the first person to win three consecutive conference titles in the same event at the Division 1 level.

Shapard also ran on the Ute women’s 4×400-meter relay team, which took third place in the conference and set a new school record in 3:38.96. The team shaved two seconds off its regional qualifying time and broke the record set only a week and a half prior.

Shapard said her teammate, Ashley Patterson, who ran the anchor leg of the race, outleaned her closest opponent for a riveting finish. The team will advance to the regional championship for the first time in the current coaches’ tenure at the University of Utah.

The U.S. Track and Field and Cross County Coaches Association currently ranks the Utes’ 4×400 relay team eighth in the West. As an individual, Shapard is ranked fourth in the West and 15th in the nation for the 400-meter hurdles.

Shapard’s 4×100 relay team placed fifth in the Mountain West Conference with a time of 46.39, finishing within four-tenths of a second of the school record. Shapard explained that the race was actually the first time the relay team had competed together, since a week before the competition one of the original team members found out that she wouldn’t be able to race due to an injury.

This weekend, Shapard will travel to Eugene, Ore., for the NCAA Western Region Championships to compete in the 400-meter hurdles as well as the 4×400 relay. She is one of 10 athletes from the Utes’ team to qualify for the competition.

"I’m really excited to go there and be strong," Shapard said. She competed in the same meet two years ago but was struggling with a stress fracture in her shin at the time. "I’m excited to be at this point in the season," she said. "It’s fun to be at this caliber of racing." She said she is looking forward to racing against some of the fastest girls in the country.

The Western Region competition will also serve as a qualifying round for the NCAA Division 1 National Championships, which will be held June 10-13 at the University of Arkansas.

"The No. 1 goal is to finish in the top five to secure a spot in the national championships," added University of Utah head coach Kyle Kepler. "If she runs the way she has ran all year, we definitely have the opportunity to move on."

Shapard has competed in the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA national competition for the past two years. In 2007, she took 19th despite her stress fracture. Last year, she moved up to 15th place. She says her goal this year, should she advance to the national competition, is to place in the top nine, which would designate her as an All-American.

Following this season’s culminating events, Shapard plans to continue training and competing. "Hopefully I’ll be able to improve my time over the next couple years and qualify for the Olympic trials for the 2012 London games," she said.

Kepler says he’s very optimistic about Shapard’s potential and her future as an athlete. "She’s a kid with a great head on her shoulders and a great work ethic, and she just hates to lose. At this level, you have to hate to lose more than you like to win," he said.

Now that she’s on the fast track, Shapard doesn’t see herself slowing down in the near future. "I’ve been blessed with the ability to run fast, so I just go," she said.