Kiana Horton never wanted to go.
Every summer brought the same reaction. Summer vacation meant summer track, which was about as appealing to Horton as a Brussels sprout smoothie.
“I hated it. I hated it so much,” Horton said. “I ran summer track pretty much every year right up until high school, and every summer I would say, ‘Mom, I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do it.’ She’d be like, ‘No, you’re running. You’re good at it, and you’re running.’ To me, it was miserable.”
By her eighth grade year, Horton’s attitude changed. She began to give in and enjoy herself. Within time, she developed a deep love and appreciation for the sport to which she’d devoted so much time.
But that is how life has often played out for Horton, now a junior at Baylor. She has one idea of what direction she should be headed, and God has another.
She considers it a good thing, though. It led her to Baylor – a school that initially wasn’t on her radar. This year, it led her to the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, where she’ll compete this weekend in the 400-meter dash, a new foray for Horton after concentrating on the 100 and 200 her first two years in Waco.
At Judson High School near San Antonio, Horton sweated her way to becoming one of the top sprinters in the state. She won a silver medal in the 200 as a junior and accelerated to gold by her senior year, helping the Rockets win the Class 6A team title both of those seasons.
Horton’s older brother Jevon preceded Kiana as a high school track standout, and ended up signing with Northwestern. So Horton’s mother Diana was not unfamiliar with the recruiting process once Kiana’s turn in the college-seeking rotation rolled around.
Didn’t really matter to Kiana, though – she couldn’t imagine herself ending up anywhere but Fort Worth.
“Funny story. TCU has always been my dream school,” Horton said. “So my mom, my junior year of high school, took me on a campus visit to TCU, and to get to TCU you have to pass Baylor. My mom was like, ‘Oh, we should look at Baylor.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t care, let’s just go to TCU.’ And she ended up getting me an on-campus visit here to Baylor.”
While on that visit, Horton met BU sprints coach Michael Ford. She came away impressed, and ended up adding Baylor to her list of official visits.
She made her first stop to TCU. Her second visit brought her to Baylor, and she had several other trips planned thereafter. But once she spent some time in Waco and specifically the more time she talked with Ford, she knew that she didn’t need to go anywhere else. The conversations with Ford confirmed to Horton that the Baylor coaches cared about her not only as an athlete, but as a person.
“He was concerned about my well-being, my degree plan, what I want to do after track, what are my morals, my ethics, what kind of home did I come from, things like that,” Horton said. “It wasn’t just, can you run fast, can you contribute? I felt that from him. All the other coaches at all the other schools I went to, it was kind of like, what could you do for us? Not what they could do for me also. Because it’s kind of a joint effort.”
Horton committed to Baylor on that official visit, and canceled the rest of her trips.
Before she ever came to Waco in the fall of 2015, Horton had never met anyone with the name Kiana before. It’s a unique name, for sure. Then she was introduced to her new teammate, Kiana Hawn, a hurdler who enrolled at Baylor the year before Horton.
“The bad part is not that her name is Kiana, but her last name is similar to mine,” Horton said, laughing. “So everyone was like, ‘Oh, we’ll call you Kiana … H … uh, OK, we can’t call you that, because you’re both Kiana H.’ … They don’t (call us anything differently). They’re always like, ‘Kiana!’ and we’re both like, ‘Huh?’ They’re like, ‘No, no, no, that one.’”
Occasional confusions aside, Horton produced a pair of solid seasons her first two years at Baylor. She helped the Bears win Big 12 indoor titles in the 4x400 relay in both 2016 and ’17, and turned in a few all-conference finishes in the 100 and 200 individually.
But in her mind, it wasn’t enough. She had won a Texas state title as a senior. She felt like she should be winning NCAA titles, too.
“I was expecting so much of myself, not negatively, but it was just that I had this weight on my shoulders, of, ‘Oh, you need to be running this, you need to be ranked here, you need to be running at this track meet, you need to be doing this, this and that,’” Horton said. “And I didn’t really take the time to actually listen to my coach, go through the training, go through the process.”
Baylor’s coaches have seen it a million times before. A kid comes in and constantly watches the clock. If the clock doesn’t register the right time, they lose a bit of confidence.
Such was the case with Horton.
“She definitely had the talent,” Ford said. “It was more her executing the race right. A lot of times, they think about the time. They think, ‘Hey, I need to run a certain time,’ but they’re not executing their races right. … But she works hard, and she’s finally started to figure it out.”
For about a year, Ford had privately been tossing around the idea of moving Horton to the 400. Her splits on the relay suggested that she had podium-topping potential in the race.
Then Horton called Ford – “Out of the blue,” the coach said – and proposed the idea herself.
It’s a move that has worked out nicely. In her first 400 race of the 2018 season, Horton won gold at the Power Five Invitational in Michigan, clocking 53.37. In her second outing at the Big 12 Championships, she lowered her time to 52.60 – and picked up a conference title in the process.
“I think Kiana is a great example of someone that has matured,” Baylor head coach Todd Harbour said. “It’s not always easy that freshman year and even that sophomore year. It’s tough. … She moved up (to the 400) and her first race was pretty good, and her second race was even better. She’s the Big 12 champion. It’s just been neat to watch, because she’s a neat young lady and has worked hard all the way through.”
Now, Horton is headed to College Station for the NCAA Indoor Championships, which are slated for Friday and Saturday at the Gilliam Indoor Center. Both Harbour and Ford believe she’s got a shot to pop off a new personal-best time and make it onto the podium as an All-American.
“I don’t want to have any regrets,” Horton said. “I don’t want to look back on the meet and go, ‘Oh, I should have gotten out faster, or I could have kicked stronger, or I should have gone around her.’ I just want to give it my all, and I know that if I trust my training, give it my all, stay focused, the results and the time and the place that I want will come.”
Who knows what the rest of 2018 and then her senior year of 2019 will bring for Horton. But she has already come full circle in her affinity for the sport of track. The little girl who once had to be dragged kicking and screaming to practice has grown into a young woman who wants to someday become a coach and start her own summer track program.
And what would she say if she encountered an elementary-aged sprinter who wanted to quit?
“I would probably tell her in the simplest form to just trust the process,” Horton said. “You never know what you’re going to get out of it, and to just have fun with it. To me, it seemed like punishment. What six-year-old wants to go to practice Monday, Tuesday and Thursdays and run all day?
“Just trust the process and have fun with it. Because once you make it a task and once you make it a job, that’s when the fun gets out of it.”
Horton is Baylor’s lone representative on the women’s squad to qualify for the NCAA meet, but she’ll be joined by Wil London from the men’s team. London has been dealing with a nagging hamstring injury this indoor season, but still qualified in the 400. “I don’t think I’m 100 percent recovered from me missing Big 12s because of my little hamstring injury or tweak or whatever,” London said. “But I feel like if I can just go out there and compete hard, like I always do, I can hang with everybody else. I’ve done it before and I can do it again.”