Running can take a person anywhere, just ask the Record/NOW high school athlete of the year.
Raquel Tjernagel turned a weekend of personal bests into an athletic scholarship opportunity to one of the NCAA’s top Division I women’s track and field programs at the University of Texas this season.
Last April, the New Westminster Secondary School senior surprised the sporting establishment at the Brian Clay Invitational track meet in California, posting a 52.52-second clocking against an adult field in the 400 meters.
At that time, it was the fastest time in the world by a female athlete under 20. She also improved on her 200-metre time at the same meet, running 23.34 seconds – a time that later qualified her for the Pan Am Games.
The following day, Tjernagel ran 11.58 seconds in the 100 metres at the Long Beach State Invitational.
Coquitlam Cheetahs club coach Sara Self remembers the weekend well.
“When she ran a 52 in California from lane 8, she ran her first 200 like she was running for her life,” said Self. “When she came down the last 200m, she wasn’t going to let anyone by.
“She had been training well and was healthy. I knew she was going to run well, but I wasn’t prepared for the 52.50.”
Tjernagel says she has always loved running, even as a toddler. But, perhaps surprisingly, was not always the fastest in her class.
In fact, prior to joining the Cheetah club four years ago, she had never really won anything of any significance.
She remembers winning her first gold medal at a junior development meet at Bear Creek Park in Surrey.
Since then, Tjernagel has blossomed into one of Canada’s most promising young female sprinters.
“I definitely surprised (my competitors) more than it surprised me. But timing me at practice, I think (my coach) knew,” she said of her record-breaking feat.
“It’s almost like a God thing. I committed to Texas after (California) – it all became clear. It’s definitely a gift that I have. I feel very blessed,” Tjernagel added.
Her speed is deceptive and appears almost effortless, said Self. When she first saw Tjernagel’s long striding gait on the track, she thought she had a true middle distance runner on her hands.
But the time clock was telling her something different, Self said, adding “Let’s get her fitter and see where she goes.”
In that short span of time, Tjernagel has owned the 200 metres at the B.C. high school track and field championships, winning gold in the provincial race final for the past three consecutive years.
She is also the queen of the 100m, winning her second straight sprint title this year in the fastest time in more than a decade.
“I always liked running. It’s like a stress release or a break – a fun break,” Tjernagel said.
Although incredibly talented, Tjernagel has gotten to where she is through commitment to working hard at an optimal level,” said Self.
“You have to have it, if you’re going to go far, and she can work really, really hard.
“I thought maybe the 2020 Olympics, but at her age and physical maturity, I’m realigning my thinking – maybe 2016, she is really close,” said Self.
The honour roll and French Immersion student buys into the heavy work load effortlessly.
“You have to keep training hard, have to stay confident and to believe in yourself, and choose your goals well,” Tjernagel said.
But the most important lesson is remaining humble.
When Tjernagel and New Westminster Secondary teammate Nina Schultz almost singlehandedly won a second straight provincial aggregate and women’s team banner this year, she deflected the praise to her teammates and program.
“In 2014, I had two personal bests. It was exciting. But I liked that every point we got, we only won by one, everyone had a part,” she said. “You have to stay grounded and know what your goals are.”
Still, being a part of NWSS history is cool, she added.
“We will always be remembered. I find that fascinating.”
Tjernagel was also a part of the highly successful Royal City Youth Soccer Association Barcelona girls’ team that made a mark in local minor soccer circles, playing above its age group for the last few seasons.
“I liked it. It was a fun team, but we were serious and we all wanted to win,” she said.
And that is perhaps what differentiates Tjernagel from some other elite athletes.
“I definitely do want to win,” she added. “Sometimes it’s hard, but without it, you can’t get better.”
Her faith also helps her achieve those goals.
Last November, Tjernagel was unsure of where her post-secondary future lay.
But after the fortune-changing weekend in California, it all became clear to the 17-year-old sister of three.
“I trusted God. He found a plan for me,” she said. “He knew the bigger plan. Usually I think of more, but he knew what was best for me.”