The SF State women’s 4×400 relay team didn’t know what to expect when they entered the indoor national championships in Albuquerque, NM. They had never competed together before; in fact, they barely knew each other.
Despite their unlikely quartet, freshmen Keenya McDaniel and Maya Cabiness, and juniors Carrie Thomas and Alicia Chambers entered into nationals as self-proclaimed underdogs and emerged as All-Americans.
Although the team’s novelty raised some concerns, head coach Terry Burke saw something in this group of athletes that he had not seen before.
“The 2008 team had some decent athletes, but they were completely self-centered and not prepared to contribute to being a college team,” Burke said. “With all of these girls, it’s a total contrast. They are team-oriented, they sacrifice for each other and they believe in the goals that we have as a group.”
Almost as soon as they had been fortuitously placed together, the Gator relay team was raising eyebrows and accomplishing astonishing feats, placing second at indoor nationals and shattering a 26-year-old school record time for the 4×400 less than a month later at the Rafer Johnson/Jackie-Joyne Kersee Invitational in Los Angeles.
Cabiness admits that she, like the rest of her teammates, was uncertain at first.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Cabiness said. “We knew that we could run faster than the previous teams, but we didn’t know what we could all do together as a group.”
The first opportunity for the girls to run together came when SF State secured a spot in the NCAA Division II indoor national championships – the first time the school made an appearance since 2001.
“We felt like underdogs,” Cabiness said. “No one had really heard of us. We barely made it into nationals.”
Chambers, the team captain, also felt the pressure of competing with an unfamiliar squad.
“It was a little stressful since it was the first time we had ran together, but I tried not to show it,” Chambers said.
The apprehension that the Gators admittedly felt took a backseat to their desire to overcome the odds.
“We knew what we had to,” Chambers said. “We were going in with our heads on straight. We were thinking, ‘OK, we gotta get this time, so let’s just prove ourselves that we can do it.’ And we did it.”
In a true test of natural ability, the team shaved two seconds off their qualifying time. Their performance was a school-best 3 minutes, 47.03 seconds securing second place and newfound status as relay contenders.
It was a moment of triumph that would set in motion the transformation of a group of strangers to an amicable group of close friends.
“It was amazing,” said Cabiness, who ran the second leg of the race. “It blew our minds. We were so excited and so stunned at the same time. When we were up there on the podium we thought, ‘Whoa, we’re really here.’”
After practicing, traveling, competing and living together — Thomas and Chambers are roommates — the girls have obtained stability and confidence that has allowed them to continue to succeed.
Burke, who the girls lovingly refer to as “father,” recognizes that he had to overcome unique challenges to achieve the balance and stability that make a relay team successful.
“We’re not a big-time, big-money school,” Burke said. “We have limited resources. The real value has been that over time, there’s been an increased level of confidence. For our athletes, that’s fairly important, because none of them were very heavily recruited in high school. Most of them don’t have that natural feeling of belonging at a high level, even though in terms of ability and preparation, they should.”
The remarkable foursome has managed to overcome the odds, though, and continued to prove that top competitors are not always a result of expensive and exhausting recruitment.
With big successes in subsequent meets, including clinching a provisional qualifying time in the outdoor 4×100 relay at Stanford and yet again establishing a new school record in the 4×100 at UCLA, the girls have continued to bond and develop as a team.
Chambers appreciates the camaraderie that her relay team has come to achieve.
“I’m thankful,” Chambers said. “We’re definitely a lot more comfortable and a lot more goofy. We know that we can get stuff done at practice but at the same time really relax and have fun.”
Each girl offers something different to the group, and after spending considerable time together the girls are able to recognize their teammates’ strengths and contributions.
McDaniel, a somewhat timid freshman from the small Fresno County town of Selma, Calif., is dubbed “the calm one” by her teammates.
“Keenya knows who she is,” Chambers said. “She’s her own person, and honestly, I look up to her. She just goes out there and she does it, no matter if it’s hard. She’s never complained.”
McDaniel points out that Chambers’ role on the team is to keep everyone concentrated on the task at hand.
“She’s a captain and a leader,” McDaniel said. “ When we’re doing warm-ups, Alicia keeps us all focused, especially at nationals.”
Cabiness agreed that Chambers lives up to her role as team captain.
“Alicia is the one who keeps everyone in order,” Cabiness said.
Thomas, a Milpitas, Calif., native, is Chambers’ upper-class counterpart. The junior is known by her teammates for her ability to deliver stellar performances meet after meet.
“Carrie — wow—she’s just amazing,” Cabiness said. “She surprises everyone every time. You never know what’s going to happen. She has a great attitude and works really hard. It motivates us because we see her doing well and breaking records and it makes us want to do the same thing.”
Of newcomer Cabiness, who the team unanimously hails as the “funny one,” Thomas seemed equally enthusiastic.
“Maya is full of energy,” Thomas said. “If you’re mad or having a bad day, she’ll say something funny or just come up and hug you. I think she proved to us and to herself that she’s capable of doing big things.”
The girls look ahead to continue to surprise and impress and to ultimately compete in outdoor nationals to close out an undeniably successful season.
“We really proved to people how good we could be,” Cabiness said. “Now that we run together a lot, we just get better and better every time.”