June 13, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. - Thirty-six years. That's how long it took to receive my first pre-interview hug from any athlete, pro or amateur. It happened this week.
Late for a sit-down with Stanford hurdler Kori Carter, I arrived out of breath and apologized, introducing myself with a handshake. She smiled warmly, stood up, and gave me a hug, a gesture that caught me off guard.
Last Friday, she surprised the track world, as the Stanford junior ran the fastest time in NCAA history in the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon. The explosive Carter broke her own school record for the third time this year, clocking 53.21, a full second faster than her previous best time.
"I watched her do her shake-out in the morning and she looked amazing," he said. "At that point, I said, `She's going to do something special today.' I didn't know what, but I knew at that moment she was going to do something special."
Wearing her lucky flying squirrel socks, a gift from her father, Bruce, Carter felt relaxed in the morning, but got antsy toward race time.
"All day, I was doing this countdown in my head: four hours until I'm going to be national champion, five minutes until I'm going to be national champion, 60 seconds until I'm going to be national champion," she said. "I was like a kid on Christmas Day. I just wanted to get down there and open my present."
Just before the race, Carter changed into Kori Monster mode.
"She's sort of my alter ego," said Carter. "Going into a race, aggressive mode." Stewart has seen the look many times.
"When I see Kori Monster on the track, I know she's going to be hard to beat," he said. "Off the track, she's a really nice, sweet kid. When she's on the track, her level of focus is on a whole different level."
As Carter slid into the blocks at Hayward Field, her nerves disappeared. "OK, it's time to rock," she told herself.
Carter figured her biggest challenge would come from Georganne Moline of Arizona, who finished fifth in the 2012 Summer Olympics. She was right.
"I knew she was on my inside and was going to be able to see me, so I was going to have to take the first 200 out hard," said Carter. "She's really good on the back curve, which is usually my weakness, so I just had to stay relaxed."
Moline caught Carter at the eighth hurdle.
"I just sort of powered through nine and forced myself to take the 10th hurdle with my left leg, which was sort of a risk because I was taking it from pretty far out," Carter said. "Once I did that, I powered through 10."
After establishing the fastest time in the world this year, Carter was stunned. "Completely shocked," she said. "I thought I would run maybe 53.7 or 53.9. When I saw 53.2, I was just on top of the world."
So was her father. Bruce came down from the grandstands for the medal ceremony and stood next to Stewart. He talked his wife Lena into letting Carter pursue sports like her two older sisters.
"My mom thought I was going to be her princess, tea party, piano-playing ballerina," Carter laughed. "Luckily, my dad was like, `I think I'm going to take her, too.' I was the biggest tomboy thanks to my dad."
"I was like a kid on Christmas Day. I just wanted to get down there and open my present."
When Bruce heard his daughter's name called, he lost it.
"I get off the podium and my dad is standing there balling and Coach Stewart is next to him and he's tearing up," Carter recalls. "My dad was just going crazy. Later, I went up in the stands and a woman sitting next to him said he was squeezing my hand so hard."
Added Stewart, "It was a great moment. Her dad was extremely proud and I was extremely proud. When you look at last year, she finished 24th. And this year, she wins and breaks the collegiate record. What she did is extraordinary."
Not that Stewart was surprised.
"She hates losing," he said. "And when you look at all the greats, they all have that will not to lose. It doesn't matter if she's practicing with the guys.
Whatever it is, she wants to be best and works really hard. That's what makes her so special.
Carter almost won the 100-meter hurdles the next day, finishing second to junior Brianna Rollins of Clemson, who set a collegiate record with a time of 12.39. "I got a good start, but that girl is on another level," said Carter, who ran 12.79. "I hugged her after and said you are amazing."
Carter scored 18 of Stanford's 33 points, helping the women tie for sixth overall. Unknown to them, those points enabled Stanford to hold off Florida to capture its 19th straight Learfield Sports Directors' Cup trophy, awarded to the top combined men's and women's athletic programs in the country each year.
"I didn't even realize about the Directors' Cup until Monday night," said Carter. "We all thought it was a lost cause."
Of course, Carter had other things on her mind. A human biology major, she was preparing for three finals, taking a biology final on the plane ride home from Oregon, another in Human Nutrition and Functional Anatomy the following morning, and the last in Engineering 10 on Monday.
"It was sort of hard," she said. "Spring quarter, finals just sneak up on you. You make it work."
With that, she was off to another interview. But not before giving me a farewell hug.
-- By Mark Soltau, Stanford Athletics
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Palo Alto native Mark Soltau has spent his whole life and much of his career around Stanford sports. A sportswriter for 35 years, Soltau spent 16 (1981-97) at the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered not only the Cardinal, but all five 49ers Super Bowl-championship teams. Golf always has been his passion and Soltau served as the sport's beat writer for the Examiner, national golf writer for CBS Sportsline, contributing editor to Golf Digest, and since 1997 has been the editor of tigerwoods.com.