There was just something about Alexis McGaffagan that caught the eye of Largo High School track and field coach Mike Beck a little more than seven years ago. He saw more than just a freshman cheerleader flipping and tumbling on the sidelines.
Beck saw a raw athletic talent and didn’t stop pursuing McGaffagan until she decided to join the team.
“He came up to me after the game and introduced himself, and he said, ‘I think you’d be a great track athlete, and I’d like you to do some field events and maybe some sprints,'” McGaffagan said. “I said, ‘Well honestly, I hate running.’
“So he kind of came after me. He got my class schedule, and he knew where I would be, and that’s kind of how I got started.”
McGaffagan started competing in track and field during her freshman year in high school, after stopping a six-year gymnastics career in which she reached the Under-14 YMCA Nationals. She competed in the long jump, high jump and triple jump as a freshman, and eventually began running the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters.
After qualifying for the state competition in five events as a sophomore, she began to think more about a possible track and field career.
In her senior season, McGaffagan won conference titles in the long jump, high jump and triple jump. But even after all her high school success, she didn’t realize the talent inside her.
“I wasn’t a superstar, and I didn’t really stand out,” McGaffagan said. “I was just good at what I did.”
McGaffagan came to USF on a scholarship to continue her track and field career, but things didn’t go as planned in her first year.
“In high school, I seemed to do track for everyone else — to please my parents, to please my coach, to please my team, and I really didn’t enjoy it,” McGaffagan said. “I felt kind of used in high school.
“Then I get to college and I have to start all over again being a freshman, and I just had to build myself back up again. I had never trained like (now) in high school, so that was a big adjustment for my freshman year, and I wanted to quit.
“Now, I do (track) for me, and I love doing it.”
She competed in the high jump, 400 meters and the 4x400m relay her freshman season when USF coach Greg Thiel, like Beck, discovered more in McGaffagan.
Thiel decided to put McGaffagan in the heptathlon, which consists of the high jump, long jump, shot put, javelin, 100-meter hurdles, 200 meters and 800 meters, during the 2002 outdoor season.
“We knew that she could high jump, we knew she did the long jump in high school, and we knew this was something she was probably going to excel in,” Thiel said. “Last year, we competed her in the heptathlon at conference and she did a great job.”
“He had the goal for me to qualify (for the NCAA Championships) for the outdoor in the heptathlon, and I just kind of went along with it, like all right, I’ll see how I can do,” McGaffagan said.
McGaffagan did so well in the heptathlon that when the indoor track and field season began this year, Thiel decided to use her in the pentathlon, which consists of the high jump, long jump, shot put, 60-meter hurdles and 800 meters in a four-hour period. She had never competed in the pentathlon before this season, but that didn’t stop her from achieving something no other USF track and field athlete had ever done.
McGaffagan scored 3,805 points at the Cannon IV Classic Indianapolis Feb. 16 and qualified for the U.S. Track and Field Championships Sunday in Chapel Hill, N.C.
McGaffagan, a junior, was one of 14 athletes nationwide to qualify for the event. She currently ranks No. 11 based on her performance in Indianapolis.
The accomplishment gave McGaffagan a feeling she wasn’t accustomed to.
“It just felt really good to finally be recognized for something,” McGaffagan said. “I always considered myself kind of just mediocre, and it’s just exciting because I’ve never been a standout.”
Although McGaffagan stands out among the USF track and field athletes, she knows it’s going to be a little more difficult when she faces the best pro and college athletes in the United States this weekend.
“I think, going into this competition, I’m going to try and not be intimidated by the other athletes because they’re really, really good,” McGaffagan said.
The top two finishers advance to the World Championships next year. However, McGaffagan remains realistic about her chances of finishing in the top two, partly because she’s still at the beginning of her career and partly because she’s new to the event.
“I’ve got talent, but I don’t have Jackie Joyner-Kersee talent,” McGaffagan said. “I think mid-field could be attainable, definitely, but I’d have to do better than I’ve ever done. I mean, there is so much more I still need to learn.”
But if there’s one thing she seems to have learned so far, it’s how to win. McGaffagan doubled her success in the pentathlon last weekend in Houston when she won the Conference USA title in only her second time competing in the event. But that win was just icing on the cake compared to the spot in the U.S. championships this weekend.
Thiel said there is no pressure on McGaffagan this weekend, and her only goal should be to go out and try to remain consistent with how she’s performed so far this season.
“I’ll tell her to just go out there and enjoy the moment, and whatever happens in the competition happens,” Thiel said. “She’s very competitive now, but this will show her where she needs to go.”
Although the pentathlon isn’t an Olympic event, the heptathlon is. McGaffagan’s main goal this weekend is to do well and carry over the momentum she built in the indoor season in the pentathlon to the outdoor season in the heptathlon, where she’s already got her goal in focus.
“There’s no reason why I can’t qualify for the NCAAs,” McGaffagan said. “That’s my goal. That’s what I look forward to because as a freshman that was the goal I really wanted to achieve, but I didn’t know if I could.
“I would have never thought in a million years that I would qualify for (the U.S. Championships) coming in as a freshman. I didn’t think I was that talented.”
But now she knows the talent she has, and a better finish than she expects this weekend could change McGaffagan’s future plans in track and field, possibly even fueling thoughts about the Olympics.
“I’ve never really thought about it like that, but yeah, if I did that well I would definitely change the perspective on my career.”
Thiel said although the Olympics may be something to shoot for in the future, McGaffagan’s got the right idea in planning her goals.
“You can’t jump from a conference champion to an Olympian. There have to be steps in between,” Thiel said. “And one of those steps is to qualify for the NCAA (Championships), and then get that mark and just keep moving, and that’s what she’s been doing.”
Thiel has seen McGaffagan’s ability transform, just as Beck witnessed a transformation at Largo High.
“Alexis came in as maybe an average high school runner, but she’s far from average now,” Thiel said.
Thiel said that although McGaffagan possesses enough talent to be successful in the track and field world, it’s her other traits that he sees will lead her to a successful career.
“Commitment and hard work are two things that get overlooked,” Thiel said. “Everyone talks about natural and raw talent and potential, and that’s just all garbage.
“I think it’s about commitment and desire and work ethic, and she has all those things. In my opinion, those are the things I believe make a champion.”
Contact Adam Adkinsat firstname.lastname@example.org