By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
SALEM, Ore. -- It has been a time-consuming and demanding process over three years, but Willamette University track and field athlete Jewell Sparks (Jr., San Francisco, CA/Lick Wilmerding HS) has gradually improved to earn a national ranking among the top hurdlers in NCAA Division III. Entering the Gregory Invitational at North Central College (Ill.) on Thursday, May 18, Sparks is tied for 14th on the NCAA Division III performance list in the 400-meter hurdles with a time of 1:02.16. She is second on Willamette's all-time list.
After the regular season ends on Thursday, the top 22 athletes in each women's event will qualify for the 2017 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Geneva, Ohio. Official selections will be announced on Saturday, May 20 with the championships set for May 25-27.
The process of Sparks developing into a top NCAA Division III hurdler began during the 2014-15 academic year when she was a freshman with the Bearcats. She wasn't recruited by Willamette out of high school, but asked to join the team.
"She came here and didn't know if she was going to run," Willamette Track and Field Assistant Coach Brett Franz recalled. "She said that she was interested in giving it a shot and said that she had met some of the freshmen on the team."
Franz, who coaches Willamette's sprinters and hurdlers, has guided Sparks to help her improve throughout her collegiate track and field career. It started with small levels of progress early in her freshman season.
"Long hurdles (400-meter intermediate hurdles) was what she wanted to do," Franz said. "She hurdled in high school and had some basic abilities."
But overall improvement would take time and required that Franz and Sparks focus on elements of the event before concentrating on the overall result.
"The initial thing that we had to work on was the sprints," Franz explained. This focus was a good starting point for Sparks at the collegiate level because it helped her develop speed and quickness before working on hurdling form and rhythm.
"We focused on her overall speed to start with," Franz added.
Sparks was timed at 1:12.82 in her first collegiate race in the 400-meter hurdles. Less than a month later, her time was down to 1:10.58 at the Willamette Invitational.
As Sparks gained improvements in her speed, Franz was able to work on the rhythm of her running and hurdling.
"The majority of the race is on the ground," Franz said. "We focused a lot on being efficient on the hurdles and improving the rhythm between the hurdles. I think it took some time to adapt to the training program and to the amount of work it would take to get there."
But Sparks stayed committed to her workout routine and continued to improve during her sophomore season in the spring of 2016. She registered a new top time of 1:10.31 at the Willamette Opener and lowered her time to 1:07.86 at the Willamette Invitational three weeks later.
At the NWC Championships on April 22-23, 2016, Sparks placed fourth in the 400-meter hurdles after finishing in a new personal record of 1:06.18 in the prelims and a time of 1:06.45 in the finals.
In addition, Sparks was part of Willamette's successful women's 4 x 100-meter relay team in 2016. The Bearcats won the NWC 4 x 100 relay title in 48.44 seconds with Sparks running the first leg. She was joined on the team by Teneah Rushen, Maura Forbush and Kylea Johnson.
"During her sophomore year, being on the short relay (4 x 100-meters) that won conference let her realize she was pretty good," Franz commented. Sparks also gained confidence from her fourth place finish in the 400-meter hurdles. "I think that was kind of an ah-hah moment for her ... that she had more improvement in her."
Sparks recorded her fastest time of her first two seasons at Willamette in the 400-meter hurdles during the West Coast Invitational on May 12, 2016. Her new personal record was 1:05.59.
As her junior year began last fall, Franz encouraged her to achieve her potential as a hurdler for the Bearcats.
"Her initial goal was to get on the Willamette all-time top 10 list in the event," Franz said. That was a good goal, but he saw bigger goals for Sparks, who needed to reduce her top time by just 0.34 to reach Willamette's top 10. He knew she could do even better.
"I said 'we need to look to get you to the 1:03s or the 1:02s'. She looked at me kind of strange," Franz recalled, noting that even so, "She turned the switch on to be a lot more focused at practice."
Her focus and determination have paid off. She lowered her top time in the 400 hurdles to 1:05.40 at the Willamette Invitational on March 25. Then she achieved a career-best 400-meter dash time of 59.21 at the Jenn Boyman Invitational at Linfield College on April 1.
With improved sprinting and hurdling, she entered the 2017 NWC Championships at Whitworth University with momentum. In the prelims on April 21, she reduced her personal record by just over two seconds to 1:03.37 and advanced into the finals. In the championship race, she took third place for All-NWC honors with a time of 1:02.73. She was third on WU's all-time list.
After registering a nearly identical result of 1:02.78 at the Oregon State University High Performance Meet, she lowered her top time to 1:02.16 and placed second at the Portland Twilight on May 13. She moved up to second on the Willamette list. Sparks will compete in the 400-meter hurdles at the Gregory Invitational on Thursday before making final preparations to run at the NCAA Championships.
"We've reassessed goals with her consistently," Franz said. "She's made big jumps in her times. We've focused on running her race. The better races we can get her in the better her times will be."
Wet weather and cold temperatures this spring slowed her progress during the middle of the season, but even then, she was starting to finish in front of runners she hadn't beaten in the past.
"By the NWC meet, she was ready to run faster and she's still ready to run even faster," Franz noted.
Sparks is perhaps at her best over the closing portion of the race.
"She's really strong over the final 100 meters," Franz noted. "We want her to be running her race through the first half. Once she gets through that, it's about beating people and staying competitive in the race. She's running pretty consistent splits on the first 200, which is setting her up to do well."
During her three seasons, Sparks has made exceptional improvement as a sprinter and a hurdler. Those gains have been made through the combined efforts of Sparks and several Willamette coaches.
"A lot of her success is from the whole collaborative group that works with her," Franz said.
Assistant Coach Doug Pierce assists with her hurdles. Assistant Coach Jaela Dinsmore helps with strength and nutrition. The Willamette athletic trainers keep her healthy. And Franz focuses on the sprints and hurdles, and coordinates everything so that Sparks continues to improve.
In return, Sparks has committed herself to the process. And she has continued to be a verbal leader for her teammates. Whe she's not on the track, she's encouraging and congratulating other Bearcat track and field athletes.
"She's big into the team and everything the team does," Franz commented. "She's also pretty locked in right now to running faster."
All of her efforts have taken her pretty far already. She's among the top hurdlers in NCAA Division III and still has one more year of eligibility remaining. For now, the focus is on the Gregory Invitational the NCAA Championships.
"This is the fun time now," Franz said. "The races get better, the weather gets better. It's the time to use everything we've learned, and if you execute, you'll probably be really happy."