Kayla Parker is on fast forward.
The former Port St. Joe High School standout qualified last weekend for the NCAA Division I track and field meet held this week in Eugene, Oregon.
Parker, a junior at the University of Kentucky, qualified eighth in the 100 meter hurdles at the NCAA East Prelims to reach the national semifinals which will take place today and will be streamed live by the NCAA.
Twelve runners came out of the East and West regions for the 100 meter hurdles, setting up a three-stage semifinal.
The finals in the event will be Saturday.
“It’s is amazing,” Parker said by phone from Portland, Oregon as her team traveled to the NCAA national meet. “I am just so blessed to have this opportunity.
“I don’t put a time or place on things as a goal or anything. I just want to continue running faster and competing. I know I can go faster. I am pleased so far, but I am not satisfied.”
Parker, ranked No. 2 in the 100 meter hurdles in UK history, ran a 13.26, just off her personal best at the East Prelims.
She is one of just four female athletes from UK to qualify to the national meet and one of six Wildcat athletes overall that will be making their debut at the national meet.
"My overall take heading into the NCAA is we are moving forward," said UK first-year head coach Edrick Floreal. "There is still quite a bit of work to do, but I think the most important thing at a meet like this (East Prelims) is leaving an impression. When you make an impression where other people notice how much better and different the team is, to me, is important.
"Making our own mark and being noticed for building something special is the most important thing. Having the kids buy in and realize the possibility of being great is yet there."
Part of that something special is Parker, who attributes much of the credit for a breakout season on the shoulders of Floreal.
After two years of struggling, due largely to competing in the heptathlon, a multi-specialty event, Parker has hurdled her way up the UK history books – she put herself among the nation’s elite with a personal best in the 60-meter hurdles during the indoor season – in large measure because of Floreal.
When Floreal came in, one of his first moves was putting Parker in her specialty, the 100 meter hurdles, in which she won four state titles in high school.
“It was more of an atmosphere change than anything,” Parker said. “Coach (Floreal) is just so positive and has been so positive with me, working on technique and conditioning.”
But Parker said, her indoor season did not finish on quite the up note as it began because, well, it wasn’t 100 meters.
“The times were consistent but I could see I am a 100 meter hurdler,” Parker said. “I am a strong closer. Indoors, there are five hurdles. I am strongest from hurdle three through eight (out of 10 hurdles outdoors) so I never had a chance to really show that closing speed.”
Parker had spent much of the outdoor season ranked No. 10-11 in the East and 13th overall in the nation in her event.
So, as she said, it “wasn’t a far-fetched idea” that she had what it took to qualify for her first nationals.
“The training I have done and trying to keep running the same time or faster, the consistency I think speaks for itself,” Parker said of her outdoor season.
That she will be running on the same track made famous by the late Steve Prefontaine, considered one of the great middle- and long-distance runners the country has produced, only adds to the excitement.
“That is an amazing opportunity in itself,” Parker said. “There have been so many great athletes that have run there. Last weekend they had the Prefontaine Classic and there were so many great runners there. That will be exciting just being on the track.”
Parker said she is ready to step onto college track and field’s biggest stage and compete against the best in the country.
“I’m feeling good,” Parker said. “I’m ready. I’m healthy and I’m feeling strong.”