Marlton native goes from hurdles beginner to NCAA national qualifier

After picking up the hurdles for the first time as a high school senior in 2016, Cherokee graduate Kaila Carter is now a top hurdler at The College of New Jersey

Marlton native Kaila Carter competes in the 60-meter hurdles for The College of New Jersey. Just two years after picking up the hurdles for the first time in her senior year of high school, Carter qualified for the NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field National Championships in March.

In the spring of 2016, Marlton native Kaila Carter was just a few months away from graduating from Cherokee High School. She was all set to attend college at The College of New Jersey in the fall to pursue a degree in biology and had aspirations of possibly going to medical school.

It was during this time that Carter decided to join track for the first time after assistant coach and English teacher Emily Castor encouraged her to try out.

“There’s a week where you can dabble in all of the events,” Carter said. “I looked over at the hurdles and I asked coach if I could try the hurdles.”

Two years later, Carter found herself in Birmingham, Ala., on the biggest stage for a Division III college athlete. Two years after becoming a hurdler for the first time, Carter was racing in the NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field Championships.

Carter’s transformation from beginner to one of the fastest in Division III in the country didn’t happen overnight. It involved two years of constant practice, training, focus and encouragement from coaches.

When Carter first decided to try hurdles, her coaches at Cherokee expressed doubt due to her short height of around 5 feet. However, Carter’s athletic background helped her compensate for what she lacked in height.

“I did use to be a dancer so I have the agility from dance from previous years,” Carter said. “But I never really learned how to run or sprint.”

Competing in the 100m hurdles for the Chiefs, Carter gradually improved her times over the course of the season. At the 2016 South Jersey Group IV sectional meet, Carter finished in fifth place with a personal best time of 15.51 seconds. Her time was good enough to qualify her for the NJSIAA Group IV state championship meet, despite Carter having picked up hurdles for the first time just a few months earlier.

“Hurdles just came naturally to me,” Carter said. “My times kept dropping little by little each week.”

As Carter’s times improved, the Cherokee coaching staff encouraged her to reach out to TCNJ’s girls track and field head coach Justin Lindsey about running in college. Lindsey and TCNJ assistant coach Michael Walker had both watched some of Carter’s high school races and encouraged her to come out for the college team. At first, Carter couldn’t believe it.

“It took me a really long time to believe that I could (compete in college),” she said.

Carter credited Lindsey with not pressuring her and preaching a balance of academic, athletic and extracurricular activities. This helped convince Carter to run in college.

“He was always putting my academics first,” Carter said of Lindsey.

Carter admitted she was nervous at first heading into her first season in 2017.

“I never thought nationals was in my realm,“ Carter said heading into her first season. “I only thought I would be a part of a team, not a big factor on the team.”

Carter’s times in the 60-meter hurdles improved dramatically as the 2017 indoor season continued. After running times between 9.5 and 10 seconds in the first half of the season, Carter dropped her time to a season best 9.07 seconds by the end of the season. In the 100-meter hurdles during the outdoor season, Carter had a season best time of 15.31 seconds, two-tenths of a second faster than her best high school time.

Carter did a lot of training over the offseason and entered the 2018 season as a much stronger athlete. While additional lifting in the gym has helped her gain strength and speed, Carter said her biggest change was mental. She entered the big meets of 2018 with a lot more confidence than she did as a freshman.

“I actually wrote 8.90 (seconds) and Alabama nationals and had that hanging on my bedroom wall since August,” Carter said.

Right from the beginning of the season, Carter was consistently putting up times between 9.3 and 9.4 seconds in the 60-meter hurdles. At the 2018 New Jersey Athletic Conference Indoor Championships, Carter finished with a personal best time of nine seconds, just 0.13 seconds behind Rowan University’s Aspen McMillan, one of Division III’s fastest hurdlers.

In Division III, the top 17 athletes in the nation in each individual track event qualify for nationals. Carter knew she was on the cusp of qualifying entering the final meet of the regular season, the All-Atlantic Region Track and Field Championships at Ithaca College.

In the finals of the meet, Carter was again lining up against McMillan and knew exactly how quick she had to run to meet her goal of qualifying for nationals.

“I knew the way she ran and the times she was running,” Carter said. “I knew if I just stayed with her one more hurdle, I will be reaching that time.”

In the preliminaries, Carter finished with a time of 8.92 seconds, tying the TCNJ program record set by Priscilla Senyah in 2010 and officially clinching a spot in nationals.

“I turned around and looked at the board and my eyes were watery, because I couldn’t see clearly,” Carter said. “I lost it because at the beginning of the season, I told my coach that I wanted this record and I wanted to qualify for nationals.”

The national championships were held at the CrossPlex in Birmingham this year. Carter qualified for the meet along with fellow teammates Samantha Gorman, Katie La Capria and Kathleen Jaeger. The experience of stepping on the track at the CrossPlex for the first time was a moment Carter will never forget.

“We’d just gotten into the facility and were starting to warm up,” she said. “Standing there with my teammates, that first moment I stopped and took it all in, that was an overwhelmingly exciting experience for myself.”

Competing against mostly upperclassmen at nationals, Carter finished 14th with a time of 9.01 seconds. Carter admitted she was nervous competing on a national stage for the first time, but said the experience alone was one of the best times she has ever experienced in her life.

“It was really cool just to be surrounded by these awesome athletes and get to race with them,” she said.

With a trip to nationals under her belt, the sky is now the limit for Carter. She envisions competing at nationals again in the future and becoming one of the best hurdlers in Division III.

“I’m essentially, from now on, striving to become All-American,” she said.