RICHMOND, Va. – Her name is Kiara Porter. She’s 5-feet tall, from Yorktown, and is most likely faster than you. In the time it takes you to walk to the copier, she can win a gold medal.
Just a sophomore, she’s already broken or assisted in six school records, won seven conference titles and represented the United States in the 1,600-meter relay at the World Junior Track and Field Championships in Barcelona last summer, where she won – you guessed it – a gold medal. Earlier this month, she was named the most outstanding performer of the Atlantic 10 Conference Outdoor Championships after winning four events. By several units of measure – particularly at 400 meters – she’s the fastest woman in VCU in history. It’s not by accident.
“Everything I put on paper, she tries to hit it,” says VCU Track Coach Jon Riley. “She’s just focused. Her work ethic and her work capacity to do a lot of intensity is high. She has a high threshold for pain. That makes her very successful.”
All that pain has been worth plenty of gain for the rising junior. While many of her peers are just starting to hit their athletic stride, figuratively speaking, Porter is eying the next big thing. For her, that’s reaching in the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore. in June.
On May 24-25, Porter will run the 400 at the NCAA East Preliminary meet in Greensboro, N.C., where the field will first be paired down from 48 runners to 27. The quarterfinals will then decide which 12 will head to Oregon. Last year, Porter survived the first cut. But in the quarterfinals, she placed fifth in her heat in 53.28, the 15th-fastest time, three spots from advancing.
While she would have liked to move on, she was one of just two freshmen in the top 15. Porter was already blowing expectations out of the water.
“I really enjoyed regionals,” Porter says. “It was really fun for me to run against those girls. Some of those girls, I’ve run against before during the season, some of them I haven’t. So, it was great competition and running at that caliber, with those girls, trying to get to nationals. I was happy with the place I came in. I think I was ranked 17th going in and I finished 15th, so I was very proud of that accomplishment.”
Heading into the weekend, Porter is again ranked 17th in the East Region.
Two VCU women have reached the NCAA Championships in a track event –Beth Green and Maria Elena-Calle – none since 1997. The last Ram to advance to the NCAA Championships in any event was Tanika Brown in 2005. So, while Porter’s chase for a trip to Eugene represents a potential milestone in her career, it represents a similar opportunity for the VCU Track and Field program.
In five years under Riley, VCU will have made nine appearances at the NCAA East Regional, including Porter and thrower Jaleesa Williams this year. But an actual NCAA Championship qualifier has been elusive.
“I think it’s really important,” Riley admits. “Not only for her, but for the program, and she can do anything she puts her mind to.”
The importance and the scale of the event are not lost on Porter.
“It’s a great motivator,” she says. “Just getting to the NCAA Regional is a great accomplishment, but just leaving there and doing something farther than that is a great motivation for me.”
To survive and advance, Porter will likely have to run faster than ever before. A finance major, Porter is no stranger to the idea that numbers, however small, can have dramatic impacts. Like in finance, trimming a number here or moving a decimal point there can go a long way. The difference between a trip to Oregon and a ticket home last year for Porter was five-tenths of a second, less time than it takes you to check your review mirror. But that’s the difference at the elite level. At last year’s East Regional, the top eight finishers in the 400-meter quarterfinal were all separated by less than a second.
Although she’s run as fast as 53.07 this season, she and Riley know she’ll have to probably crack the 53-second barrier to break into the top 12. To do it, and Riley believes steadfastly she can, Porter will have to smooth the minutia of her mechanics and mental approach, things unnoticeable to casual observers. Riley has developed a game plan for Porter that he hopes will get her through the first 200 meters in around 25 seconds flat, about two seconds slower than her personal-best time in a 200-meter race this season. If she can do that, Riley says, an NCAA bid could be there for the taking.
Riley says he wants Porter to accelerate through the first 50 meters, then transition into a glide – settling into a comfortable pace – for the next 150. He hopes that will leave Porter with plenty of gas for the final 200 meters, when she can kick into overdrive.
What runners know that others may not, is that you can expend energy very differently over the same distance. How you run a race can make all the difference between having that final kick or fading away. There’s a balance to it all. Think of the scene in Apollo 13, in that, the sequences in which you turn on your equipment can burn differing amounts of energy.
“As long as we follow the game plan, I think we’ll have some success,” Riley says. “They have seven other people on the track, and they’re going to all follow a game plan, but it’s all about who runs the fastest to advance. But I like her chances based on what I’ve seen this past week.”