Emily Sloan enters the New Balance National Indoor Championships with her eye on a new national record.
Emily Sloan walked around the banked track at the Albuquerque Convention Center last month. Her light blue eyes scanned the scene as professionals in vibrant neon colors whizzed by at dizzying speeds. While most would've been intimidated by seeing America's best track athletes in the flesh, Sloan was more inspired than anything else.
"Honestly, it was hard to focus," Sloan admitted. "I was definitely a little star-struck."
Okay, maybe she was a little intimidated.
And it makes sense -- the 17 year-old Rock Canyon senior was a day away from lining up against the best professionals in her event at the USATF indoor championships. She'd be sharing the same track with names of women who held personal records that Sloan had likely memorized.
"It was unreal," Sloan said. "But I kept telling myself that I can compete with them. I can compete at that level."
A day later, she did.
Sloan crouched down in the starter blocks with her blonde ponytail dangling around her shoulders and simplified the moment.
"I wasn't thinking about anything but the five hurdles in front of me," she said.
When the gun shot for her first preliminary heat, she was off.
Then, 8.07 seconds later, she had crossed the line. The time dropped her PR from 8.21 to 8.07, and lit the high school track scene on fire with another PR - and she lived to battle through the semifinals.
From the eyes of her coach, Chuck Dugue, everything was going according to plan.
"We knew she'd have to compete at USATF," Dugue said. "And she did that, she didn't shy away or get intimidated."
A day later she regrouped, this time among even more seasoned professionals in the semis, and backed up her 8.07 with an 8.15. The finish was just off a finals qualifying time, but the silver lining was clear.
"I didn't have a good start either," Sloan mused. "I know I can run faster."
The Comeback Kid
While the story of Sloan's rise to the high school hurdle supremacy is already a good one, what makes it better is that it's actually a comeback story.
A year ago, Sloan's indoor season was cut short due to torn cartilage in her knee. Knee surgery wiped out what was shaping up to be a big indoor season for the then-junior.
"It was bad," Sloan said, letting her voice extend on the word in a low tone. "It was really, really upsetting."
The setback sidelined Sloan for three months, and erased the five months of training she had under her belt. Adding to the tongue-biting disappointment was the fear that she may never return to form, having had knee surgery, something that was obviously a risk.
But it was a risk worth taking.
Sloan bounced back for an abbreviated outdoor season on limited training -- she didn't race until the middle of April. Despite the setback, her competitors were in for a surprise, as Sloan quickly rediscovered her former stride and defended her 100 hurdle state title a month after hitting the track.
"Even with the setback, she still rebounded very quickly," Dugue said. "She wasn't nearly as explosive out of the blocks, like she is now."
She won every race until the New Balance Nationals Outdoor championships in June, where she placed third. It was the only time during the 2017 season that she didn't cross the finish line first. And while she stormed through the season with an unblemished record until then, her fastest time was just outside the top-10 in the country.
Despite that fact, she proved to be a worthy competitor. This year she's not only proficiently clean over the hurdles in times that are competitive across the country, but she's also continued to bring a well-known fierceness to the track.
Now, Sloan will face arguably the best crop of 60 hurdlers in the recent history at the New Balance National Indoor Championships this week.
The four-time Colorado state champion started her 2018 60 hurdle campaign with one word burning in her mind: redemption.
Sloan kicked her competitive season off Dec. 6 at the Colorado Mines HS Indoor Series #2 , winning the her signature event in 8.47. The meager start was only a prelude of what was to come. A month later she blitzed the field in a then-personal best of 8.38 at the Nite Moves Kickoff. The time turned heads across the country. The result thrust her into the national spotlight as she headed south to the Carl Lewis Invitational. Sloan brought the heat to Texas, dominating a solid field, as she was clearly in a class of her own.
And she was just warming up.
"This year I wanted redemption for missing last year," Sloan said. And based on her results thus far, that much has proven true.
Sloan lowered her best to 8.33 at the USATF Colorado All-Comers Meet. The mark was No. 2 in the country at the time, though she'd get bumped to No. 3 just weeks later. So, Sloan went south once more, this time to Georgia for the Dunamis Super Meet, and ran two personal bests. Sloan's 8.31 in the prelims turned heads, but it was her 8.21 in the final that really dropped jaws.
While the time was clearly impressive, the air was slightly taken out of her big weekend by crossing the finish line with the tape already parted for her -- she finished second behind Georgia's Tia Jones, who ran 8.15.
"That 8.21 in Atlanta really showed me what she could do," Dugue said. "We knew Tia would run well, but Emily really stepped up to the challenge."
Stepping up to the challenge, as it is described, is something that defines Sloan.
Having tasted the sweetness of what the fabled Ricky Bobby would label "Going Fast," and now with her engines in full-throttle, Sloan took on professionals at the the USATF indoor track and field championships a week later. It was among the best professionals in the country that Sloan really climbed up the ladder and into a realm of elite.
"It's like every week there's a new US No. 1 time," Sloan said.
Like the battle for the first sub-4 mile in which Roger Bannister, John Landy, and Wes Santee inched forward as the world clung to every hundredth of a second, the battle down to 8 seconds and presumably a new national record is eerily reminiscent, as it holds the same teeth-clenching anxiety of who'll do it first, and when.
Sloan upped the ante once again in the prelims at USATF, running an eye-opening, jaw-dropping, mind-numbing 8.07 at USATF Indoors.
"I'm still having trouble grasping it," Dugue joked.
A Record Within Sight
Since then, talk of a new national record has been brewing as the trio of Sloan, Stark, and Jones are set to clash at NBNI this week, and Sloan, a student of the sport, is very well aware.
"I've been keeping my eye on the competition," Sloan said, adding that she's an avid MileSplit fan. "I know if I'm not running fast, they are, so it keeps me motivated."
And if there's one thing that's defined Sloan, it's her unwillingness to back down from a challenge.
"She's always trying to get faster," Dugue said. "I never have to worry about pushing her, because she's always trying to get better, she never, never backs down from a challenge."
As the the inevitable clash of the titans is set for this weekend, Sloan welcomes the challenge as she always has.
"I'm really excited for all of us to race each other," Sloan said. "We could all go under 8 seconds -- that would be hurdle history."
While she'll join the 2017 outdoor national champions -- the University of Oregon -- next year, it's clear she wants to head to Eugene with some hardware, and a few records to her name.