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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Herriman's Kaysha Love wins the 100 meter finals last year.
I honestly didn’t know if that was a good time. I just went out and ran. My coach told me I could win state. I was shocked to hear that —Kaysha Love

HERRIMAN — Kaysha Love had to be nagged by her mother for two years to try track and field, and ever since then she has been a local sensation who is gaining a national presence.

Love, a sophomore at Herriman High, is the fastest high school girl ever in Utah.

At last month’s Arcadia (Calif.) Invitational — widely considered the best in-season prep track meet in the nation — Love won the seeded heat of the 100-meter dash with a time of 11.75. Second place was in another area code, at 12.04. Her time would have placed third in the elite race. Love returned later in the evening to win the elite heat of the 200-meter dash with a time of 24.11.

Both times rank in the top 40 nationally. They also surpass Utah’s official state high school records, but will not be recognized as such because they were produced out of state. The official, all-classes state records for the 100- and 200-meter dashes are 11.85, set by Brighton’s Aubrey Hale in 2010, and 24.18, set by Spanish Fork’s Natalie Stewart in 2008.

Love is a good bet to break those records before the season ends in three weeks. At last week’s Davis Invitational, in cold and rainy conditions, she ran 11.88. Earlier this season, in a tri-meet at Herriman, she ran 11.63, with a slight wind aid that nullified it for record considerations (performances with a wind exceeding 2 meters per second are disallowed as records).

How fast can she run this year? “I think she’ll be down there in the 11.5s,” says Herriman coach Jake Garlick.

And yet Love is still a raw, undeveloped talent who is learning the sport. She didn’t start running track until 13 months ago. Until then, she was a Level 10 gymnast, which is one step from elite. For nearly a decade her life was built around the sport, checking out of school at 12:50 p.m. daily and training at a gym until 6:30.

Love tried track briefly. As a seventh-grader she participated in a summer county-rec track program, where she was first seen by Garlick. She showed immediate promise by running 13 flat for 100 meters and high jumping 5 foot 3 inches, which was also her height at the time. She returned to gymnastics in the fall to prepare for the winter season and forgot about track, but her mother Stephanie didn’t.

“I knew then that if gymnastics didn’t pan out, she could run track,” she says.

Love, who was training six days a week for gymnastics, was a perennial all-around state champion until the injuries began. A hamstring pull and broken toe sidelined her for consecutives seasons. She also experienced chronic knee pain from all the pounding that is endured in gymnastics. Stephanie again suggested that she try high school track, but her daughter wanted to focus on gymnastics.

“I think I was scared I would love something more than gymnastics,” says Kaysha. “I still loved it.”

“She had tunnel vision,” says Stephanie. “I kept harassing her about track. I could see she wasn’t as happy as she used to be in gymnastics. The injuries were taking their toll on her, and she was frustrated. But that’s all she knew. That was her family away from her family.”

A routine ensued. Stephanie would prod Kaysha to run track and she would resist. “What makes you think I can run track if I can’t even run the vault runway (because of knee pain)?” she would say.

The 2013 track season was already a month old when Garlick called. He remembered Love from the county-rec program. “Why isn’t Kaysha out for track?” he asked Stephanie. Kaysha relented and decided to try the sport again. Two days after joining the team she clocked 12.01 in a small meet in Herriman.

“I honestly didn’t know if that was a good time,” she says. “I just went out and ran. My coach told me I could win state. I was shocked to hear that.”

Love was hooked. She told her mom she wanted to quit gymnastics. Now the roles were reversed. Stephanie urged her to postpone the decision until she was certain, and this conversation was repeated several times in the coming weeks. “When you have to train in the cold and it’s raining, are you still going to love it?” she asked. After picking up Kaysha after practice one day, Kaysha reported, “It was so cold and windy, but I still love it.”

A few weeks later Love set 4A state records of 11.90 and 24.52 and won state championships in the 100- and 200-meter dashes. After the season, she informed her gymnastics coaches that she was quitting the sport. The timing was good. Love has grown to 5-foot-8½ in the last year and has a thick, muscular build of 150-plus pounds, which would make her a giant in gymnastics.

As Stephanie aptly puts it, “She doesn’t look like your average sophomore. But she’s always been muscular. Even when she was a little girl, she had a six-pack and people would ask, ‘Do you take her to the gym?’”

Love set state records as a freshman despite serious flaws in her sprint mechanics, running with a pronounced lean that produced a big back kick and little knee action. This year she has corrected most of those problems after working with veteran coach Kevin Fletcher, and her sprinting has gone to another level.

Love’s future seems promising, not only as a sprinter but perhaps as a heptathlete, given her powerful build, natural strength and athletic ability (she also has cleared 5 -foot-7½ in the high jump). She comes from an athletic family. Stephanie, who is 5-foot-9, played basketball at Salt Lake Community College and ran track for Taylorsville High, setting school records in the sprints. Her father Kevin, who is 6-foot-4, played basketball at Utah Valley. Both have siblings who ran sprints in college and high school.

“Kaysha’s blown us all away,” says Stephanie. “She’s just so young in the track world, and to be running as fast as she has been running without a lot of formal training … .”

Love watches video of her races and studies Olympic sprinters on YouTube, trying to find ways to improve. “I have really found this new passion for track,” she says. “It’s becoming my life, like gymnastics.”

A straight-A student who already has received letters from colleges (including UCLA), she notes that she is equally serious about her education. “Grades mean a lot to me,” she says. “I really want to go to college. That’s my big goal at the moment. If anything else happens, great.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]