Anybody who ran Class 4A track in the early 1990s was well aware of Ryan Tolbert-Jackson. By the time she graduated from Clovis High School in 1994, the former Ryan Tolbert had won 18 state track titles. However, she needed a trip to Arizona to get noticed at the Great Southwestern Classic.
Success followed her at Vanderbilt University, where she won the NCAA title in 400-meter hurdles in 1997 and still holds 10 school records.
Now 30, Tolbert-Jackson is married, a mother and a graduate student at the University of West Georgia in Atlanta. Just don’t call her retired.
Q: What are you doing now in your professional life?
A: I’m completing my master’s degree in school counseling. I do some counseling in a middle school here a couple days a week.
I volunteered for a while with the church that I go to, in the campus ministries and the team ministries. That led to (an interest in counseling).
Q: What’s your current situation in track?
A: Right now, I’m not training or competing, but I haven’t retired. I’m contemplating coming back for 2008. I’m going to see if I can work out my schedule for completing my master’s and making sure my son is taken care of.
Q: Why go back? It seems like you’ve got a full plate right now.
A: I still love it. I feel like I’ve done everything I could do on the professional level, and I still have a couple of years left. If I can get back into it, I’ll definitely want to take that opportunity.
Q: What events do you want to run in if you come back?
A: I will consider the 400 hurdles, possibly the 800. I’m open. I did the heptathlon in college, so I have a variety of options.
Q: What do you enjoy about track, other than being good at it?
A: I like being in shape, I like the traveling. It’s just the competition — to prepare for something and compete and realize all your hard work came to fruition.
Q: How did your time in Clovis help you?
A: In my experiences with high school track, the coaching staff kind of helped me realize my potential and they were very encouraging. That led to competing in the western area. I went to Arizona, ran some good times. I got a lot of support from the town in general. They helped me raise money to make that trip to Arizona, which helped get me recognized on a national level.
Q: You talk about support. When you were in high school, you won 18 titles and most preliminary meets. How do you support people who just weren’t as talented?
A: Track is more than physical — I think a lot of it is mental. Being able to compete on a team where people got along and were supportive, they made it fun. We came up with cheers, little rituals, so I have fond memories.
Really, everyone out there was doing the best they could, whatever that meant. If you got fifth place, we were excited that you got fifth. If your goal was just to run one second faster, we were all about helping you run one second faster.
Q: When you made the jump to college, what was the biggest adjustment?
A: The toughest part was being so far away from home. Tennessee was a 19-hour drive, which was hard. It was an adjustment training four to six hours a day, six to seven days a week. But I got to see the positive results from it when I was able to compete on that level. The increased discipline built my character a lot.
Q: What are some of the positive results?
A: It definitely started a passion for coaching. I like to teach the sport, especially to little kids. I think it gave me a view of the world as bigger — beyond Clovis, beyond New Mexico, beyond the U.S. Something that you like, and something you happen to be good at, can take you far, to places you could never imagine visiting or seeing. Now, just to look at the world, (I know) what I do in my own little part affects other people.
Q: How do you relate what you’ve learned in track to other areas?
A: I think my success in track relates as to what it is people want to accomplish. The little victories along the way get you there. If you think about just the finish line and the end result, sometimes you defeat yourself before you even get started. I learned in track that every time I run a little bit faster, every practice I attended, every race was one step closer to my goal, which was to be No. 1 in my sport. I try to tell people that when you set a goal, every day you get up and every small thing you do is a good thing. You need to be excited about that, and be positive moving toward what you want.
Q: Any advice for other local athletes who may be on the cusp of college athletics?
A: Something I’ve always said is to remember, “You get to.” My coaches told me you don’t have to practice, you don’t have to balance schoolwork and missing home and not doing things other college students are doing. You get to do those things. When you look at everything that comes with the college scholarship as an opportunity and blessing, you’ll get more out of it.
If you want to go to college and compete, you’ve got to market yourself. Get a videotape, get the addresses of athletic departments you’re interested, and send your video. Don’t wait for them to contact you.
— Based on an interview with CNJ Staff Writer Kevin Wilson and edited for style, space and clarity.
Name: Ryan Tolbert-Jackson
Born: June 16, 1976, in Little Rock, Ark.
Occupation: Graduate student at University of West Georgia. Also does track coaching for local track clubs and volunteers at area schools.
Family: Husband, Mike. Son, Kaleb, 10 1/2 months.
Hobbies: “Playing with my son. He enjoys jumping, bouncing. Maybe (he’ll play) basketball.”