June 5, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. -
Katie Nelms has learned to expect the unexpected from Kori Carter.
She might come home to her dorm room and find her teammate hiding in her bed. Or hear a sound from the closet and see a poof of hair protruding from an opening.
And at all times, she must brace for the inevitable, but unpredictable, Nerf gun attack.
"I like to be a little kid," said Carter, a sophomore hurdler on the Stanford track team. "So, I might pretend to be a ninja today. I like to define myself as a 5-year-old."
Responded Nelms, with a smile, "Your parents would be so proud."
Carter, who lists one of her hobbies as "chasing squirrels" - she once asked her mother to pull over so she attempt to catch one - has chased and achieved plenty in track and field. She is the Stanford record-holder in every hurdles event - the 100 and 400 meters outdoors, and 60 indoors. She was a five-time California state high school champion while at Claremont in Los Angeles County, and represented the United States twice at the world youth championships.
Nelms, a local standout from San Jose's Leland High, has been something of an understudy to her classmate. Nelms ran in six state final races and never beat Carter. She also is No. 2 behind Carter on Stanford's 60- and 100-meter lists.
But Nelms has showed signs of changing the accepted order. At the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford on April 12, Nelms won their duel in a then-personal record 13.23 seconds. They finished first and second at the Pac-12 Championships in Eugene, Ore., with both breaking Carter's existing school record.
Carter edged Nelms, 12.99 to 13.01 - the difference of "a blink," said teammate Amaechi Morton. It also marked Stanford's first conference title in the event.
Can more be in store? For both? Beginning Wednesday, Carter and Nelms will be among 15 Stanford women who will compete at the NCAA Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. Carter will run both hurdles races and Nelms will run the 100 hurdles and 100 meters. Both will run on the 4x100 relay.
* * *
"These past two years, I've had the opportunity to train with both of them," said Morton, the NCAA favorite in the men's 400 hurdles. "Their relationship is funky. It's really weird. I don't see how it works because they're truly opposites."
Carter is "giggly, energetic, off the wall ... a little cuckoo," Morton said. Nelms is "more relaxed. Very chill."
And, somehow, they created a bond that began in inauspicious circumstances.
"I've heard this story about 30 times," Nelms said, as Carter began.
"I'm sitting at breakfast," Carter said. "And I open up the local newspaper at the state meet and there was a quote from this hurdler."
As one of two freshmen in the state 300 hurdles final as freshmen in 2007, Nelms was asked, "Who, in the coming years, do you expect to be your biggest competitor?"
Nelms replied with the name of the other freshman, Carter.
To Carter, the quote meant: "I want to beat Kori Carter." The challenge, at least in Carter's mind, had been proclaimed.
The frosty first impression didn't improve at their next encounter. Nelms, listening to music and keeping to herself in the warmup area, was in her own world.
"I thought Katie didn't like me," Carter said. "And all the other girls were, like, "What's up with that girl?"
* * *
At the track, the competitive Carter turns into what Morton calls "The Kori Monster." There is a singular focus and a deep desire to win. But moments before the transformation, Carter would greet her competitors with a hug - she greets everyone that way, even strangers - and join them in a brief prayer.
That's what Nelms remembers and what broke the ice. As Californians at national meets, they bonded together, especially on a 2009 trip with the U.S. team to the World Youth Championships in Bressanone, Italy, and talked of their shared desire to attend Stanford. They wrote letters back and forth, and Carter even sent Nelms a sweatsuit that she had exchanged from a Bahamanian athlete.
Nelms always wondered what made Kori ... well ... Kori. That changed when she met the entire energetic Carter family.
"Katie came home with me a couple months ago and said, `I get it,'" Carter said. "'I totally get Kori Carter now.'"
Even Kori admitted, "for the sake of the peace of the house, I have to turn it down a notch.
"In my house, anything is war. Except for my mom, we're all so competitive. We get in fights over scrabble. We play basketball on the back porch, there are no fouls. Respect is on the line.
"I've always wanted to win. That's translated into me working hard. If my coach said, `This will make you better.' I would do it."
* * *
Carter found herself bored with other sports, whether it was softball or flag football. But she found something special with the hurdles.
"I found myself wanting to practice the hurdles more and more, and falling in love with it," she said. "It was the first sport or event for me where I wanted to work hard. Everything else, I just sort of relied on my athletic ability."
Carter loved how just a little change in technique could result in huge improvements. She became a student of the event, finding videos online and worked endlessly toward perfecting the intricacies of the event.
A few hundred miles to the north, Nelms felt a similar fascination.
"I started out in the fifth grade," Nelms said. "I started out as a sprinter, but I wasn't good enough. So, the coach had me do hurdle drills."
Now, the sprinter who couldn't hack it in grade school is sprinting in the NCAA's - "I've come full circle," she said. But the hurdles has remained her first love.
"I can remember the first day I was going over hurdles," Nelms said. "It's such a good memory. Practice for everybody was ended and we were still working. And we didn't want to leave."
* * *
Their origins in the event continue to make them unique. Nelms, the sprinter, bolts swiftly out of the blocks and powers through the hurdles, not worrying if she clips or smashes into a barrier or two, a sprained ankle or broken wrist notwithstanding. The knee on her trail leg is chronically bruised and tender to each collision.
Carter is the perfectionist. Not as quick out of the blocks, Carter's technique brings her back in the race. She typically runs down all comers midway through and holds her position better than others, who tend to fall off Carter's pace.
"Everything's on autopilot," Carter said. "Your body knows what to do."
The differences were predictable in the past - Nelms out first, Carter catches up and wins. But their partnership has had its benefits for both because their weaknesses are exposed each day. Each must find ways to make up for them to beat the other. And future results can go either way.
"I would not be pushed nearly as far without her," Nelms said. "The intensity she brings really pushes me past the point of where I thought I could care about track. I don't think I'd be anywhere close to where I am."
Carter feels the same way, especially in light of Nelms' emergence this season.
* * *
After her victory at Payton Jordan, Nelms was unsure if things would change. Carter, walking off the track silently, was far from her usual effervescent self.
"I honestly was a little bit worried," Nelms said. "I was like, uh oh, I hope this doesn't change our friendship off the track, because it's going to change a little bit of the dynamic on the track."
Carter said nothing changed.
"I was definitely upset," Carter said. "But I was upset because I lost. It wasn't, How will this change my relationship. It was more like, Kori, you only ran a 13.3 today.
"Katie and I are really close," Carter continued, while turning to her friend. "But on the track, I'm going to kill you. And I hope you feel the same way."
Good friends would want it no other way.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics