Tontyana Sanders doesn’t compete in the hurdles, but she’s overcome plenty of them during her high school track career.
The Connally girls’ 400-meter speedster dealt with injuries during her freshman and sophomore seasons, including a torn hamstring late last year that kept her out of her specialty event at the 2015 state meet. The year before that, she suffered a torn ACL during volleyball season, but recovered in time to qualify for state — and win.
Now a junior, she hasn’t dealt with any setbacks for more than a year. And her times continue to impress.
“It’s been pretty good, because freshman and sophomore years probably were pretty bad for me,” Sanders said. “But I always ended up coming back stronger.”
Sanders has a full plate at this year’s state meet in Austin, with spots in the Class 4A 400, an event she’s favored to win, alongside the 4x100 and 4x400 relays. All three races are Saturday.
Her qualifying time of 55.80 seconds in the 400 is the fastest in the field, though it’s hardly her best. She has ran as low as 54.44 this season — the best in Central Texas in 2016 — and has recorded 54.21, the time she clocked during her championship run in 2014.
Another performance in the 54-second range should get the Baylor commit another victory without too much interference from rest of the field. But that doesn’t mean she’s taking the race lightly.
“Hopefully it’s a 54-low, because I know competition-wise, there’s probably a girl one second behind,” Sanders said. “So hopefully she gives me more push than what I’ve been having lately. Other than that, I just want to get first.”
Of course, there are no guarantees at Mike A. Myers Stadium, a 20,000-capcity mecca for Texas high school track and field. The massive audience adds a new element and can send jitters through a novice competitor.
But Sanders is no novice. She’s won there before, and has a finish-line photo as a memory of her incredible freshman run. Then competing in 3A, she crossed the finish line two seconds faster than the runner-up.
“It was a beautiful crowd that I saw in the background,” Sanders said. “I’ve just loved the picture since then.”
She’ll make a new home in two years at the Clyde Hart Track and Field Stadium, which opened last year and is named after the legendary 400 coach that trained Olympic gold medalists Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner.
Soon enough, Hart himself will coach Sanders when she joins Baylor for the 2018 season. He retired as the Bears’ head coach in 2005 but remains on the staff as Director of Track and Field and as a 400 coach.
“It’s probably one of the best things I could do, and it’s right down the street from home,” Sanders said. “I’ve always loved Baylor since I was a little girl, because we ran at the old track. It’s really fun that I’m going to be going to Baylor. It’s always been my dream school anyway.”
Sanders was already breaking into 54-second territory in middle school, including a 54.68 posting as an eighth-grader. It would’ve contended with state meet times recorded that year by the high school runners.
Amazingly enough, Sanders couldn’t compete in any sports, let alone track, just a few months before her victory as a freshman. She tore her ACL while going up for a ball during a volleyball game and required extensive rehabilitation to get back into track shape.
It wasn’t easy. She almost called it quits.
“It was a lot of pain, tears, constantly trying to give up,” Sanders said. “The therapist I had was really good, and she was really new, so she went by every step to make sure I did the right thing.
“We took my tests, and they said, ‘that’s pretty strong for somebody to have been there just for four months.’ After that, I knew that I probably had a chance to make it to state that that year.”
Primed to defend her title as a sophomore, Sanders ran into more injury trouble at her district meet in 2015. She felt a knot developing in her knee, then felt a popping sensation during a run.
This time it was her hamstring, and she was unable to compete in the 400. The only district race she had completed before the injury was the 4x100, and she was able to recover and help Connally finish fourth at state in that event.
Her physical therapy experiences provided her with new training knowledge to remain healthy, from new stretching techniques to proper icing and heating methods after runs. It’s helped her bounce back for a full recovery.
“I know how my body is, Sanders said. “It can get kind of frustrated and irritated, and it’s probably the main reason why I had those injuries. I had a mental mindset, and it can affect my body a lot.”
Now she’s just looking for some decent competition.
As Class 4A’s top 400 runner, Sanders has spent much of this season blowing past her opponents for easy wins. It’s not necessarily the ticket to PR times, as it’s easy to let up at the end with such a sizable lead.
Connally head coach Lisa Baucom foresees a big outing for Sanders this weekend with a tight field of runners. Sinton’s Marlee Seranno has the second-best qualifying time in the event, sitting seven-tenths of a second behind Sanders in the qualifying times.
“I don’t think she’s ran her best race all year, because she’s in front so much,” Baucom said. “That real competitive drive doesn’t always kick in until you go, ‘oh, I don’t want that person next to me to beat me.’ When you’re out in front so far and there’s nobody in sight, that makes it a lot harder to run your fastest time ever. She’s going in with a top time, and I think it’ll be a good race for her.”
Sanders can also help Connally tally some big points in the team standings. With relay events counting double, a couple of high finishes in the 4x100 and 4x400 could catapult the Cadets up the leaderboard.
It also means Sanders won’t have much time reflect on another 400 victory, should she claim first this year. She admits there will be tears, and then a trip to the podium to get her medal.
“The expectation is to win, but mainly overall just to stay healthy in the race.” Sanders said.