Track and Field: Shelby advances to NCAA Championships, Jensen and 4×400 relay team narrowly miss cut

The Commodores had a successful weekend at the NCAA East Preliminary in Jacksonville, Florida.

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Vanderbilt’s Taiya Shelby advanced to the NCAA Championships in the 400-meter race. (Twitter/vandyxctrack).

Kavi Jakes, Sports Copy Editor

Members of Vanderbilt’s track and field team competed in the NCAA East Preliminary, hosted by the University of North Florida from May 26-29. Junior Taiya Shelby headlined the meet for the Commodores by advancing to the NCAA Championships with her performance in the 400-meter race. Meanwhile, junior Grace Jensen, freshman Haley Bishop and the 4×400-meter relay team ran well to climb up the Vanderbilt record books.

On Thursday, Shelby placed seventh in the first round of the 400 to qualify for Saturday’s quarterfinals, running a personal-best time of 52.46. Her record did not stand for long, however, as she bested herself with a time of 51.84 on Saturday night. The mark, which is second-best in Vanderbilt history, earned Shelby a ninth-place finish out of 24 and a spot in the semifinals at the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Oregon. 

“I’ve had this goal since I saw indoor nationals earlier this year,” Shelby said of reaching the NCAA Championships. “I was like, ‘I really want to go there, I really think I can.’ From that point forward, I made a point to do whatever I needed to get there and made it happen. So now, here, it’s just really exciting.”

Shelby credited a race strategy developed alongside assistant coach Donnie Young and emphasized the importance of not letting the pressure faze her. 

“We have a game plan, and I knew I needed to follow that,” Shelby said. “Even though it was a bigger stage, I needed to keep my composure and still do the same things that got me here in the first place.”

Head coach Steve Keith noted how well Shelby has developed, despite missing out on her sophomore outdoor track season. He cited her strong mentality as a key to her growth.

“She’s had a really nice progression in the last three years,” Keith said of Shelby. “She’s put in the hard work and she’s got the right head for it too. Those are two big elements that you need to have.”

Jensen qualified for the 1,500 quarterfinals with a sixth-place finish in the first round. Her time of 4:16.47, a personal best, is the second-fastest time in Vanderbilt history. Jensen came up just short in Saturday’s quarterfinals, as she placed 14th overall (4:19.62), barely missing the cut for the NCAA 1,500 semifinals.

In the 100, Bishop matched sophomore Madison Fuller’s school record, running 11.52 in Thursday’s first round. 

“To finish her season on a high note like that—personal best and equal to school record—was really important to her because she missed those weeks,” Keith said, referring to the time Bishop missed due to injury. “[She’s] really gotten it back, so it’s kind of how you always want to end the season.”

Up against stiff competition, neither Bishop nor Fuller were able to qualify for the 100 quarterfinals, with Bishop placing 28th (11.52) and Fuller 43rd (11.73). Bishop also competed in the first round of the 200 but did not qualify for the quarterfinals, placing 36th with a time of 23.84.

Fuller and Shelby teamed up with sophomore Kaira Brown and junior Jordan Smith for the 4×400 quarterfinals on Saturday night. In heartbreaking fashion, the team missed the cut for the NCAA semifinals by three tenths of a second. However, they ran admirably in their final race of the year, finishing 13th out of 24 teams with a season-best time of 3:35.06, the second fastest in Vanderbilt history.  

Brown opened the relay, followed by Fuller, Shelby and Smith. While it was surprising not to see 400 star Shelby run the anchor leg, the unorthodox approach paid off.

“That was really kind of a non-traditional way to run a relay, because you usually save your fastest runner for last,” Keith said. “But it was, I think, probably the best combination we could’ve come up with.”

Although Jensen and the 4×400 team fell just short of qualifying for the NCAA Championships, Vanderbilt had a successful weekend at the East Preliminary. Keith noted that many runners overperformed relative to their pre-race rankings.

“The only thing that could’ve gone better was if the relay team ran three tenths of a second faster and if Grace was two places higher,” Keith said. “Grace came in 18th and finished 14th. And Taiya came in ranked 14th and finished ninth. And then the relay [jumped] from 14th to [13th].” 

Vanderbilt’s focus now shifts to supporting Shelby as she prepares for the NCAA Championships. Shelby’s semifinal race is at 7 p.m. CDT on June 10, with the finals scheduled for 6:02 p.m. CDT on June 12.