Tiffany Lott hurriedly laced up her black and green Reeboks and ran down the blue track to the starting line of the 200 meter trials. It was early April in Provo, but the blustery wind, partly cloudy sky, and low mercury level gave an early March feel to the annual Cougar Invitational track and field meet.
About 15 rows up in the stands, two guys retreated into leather jackets to keep warm. One of them spotted Lott running down the track. “Is that her?” he asked his friend. The two watched as the BYU junior took her place in the blocks on the far side of the track. “One of the fastest women in the world,” one of them said, incredulously.
The guys in leather jackets were two of the many “Lott groupies” at the track that day. Ever since mid-February–when she flew past five hurdles and 55 meters in 7.30 seconds (faster than Jackie Joyner-Kersee has ever done it) to claim the world best title–Lott has become somewhat of a phenomenon at BYU. Her name appears often in headlines of The Daily Universe, she is discussed in circles of people she doesn’t know, and at the Cougar Invitational, the stands were peppered with spectators hoping to glimpse one of the fastest women in the world.
They weren’t disappointed. Lott handily won her heat of the 200 meter trials, and an hour and a half earlier, Lott crouched in the blocks looking through 10 hurdles toward the finish line 100 meters away. When the gun sounded, Lott’s black and green Reeboks began clearing blue and white barriers. Skimming the 10th hurdle before her competitors reached the ninth, Lott clocked a time of 12.79 seconds–a personal best, a BYU record, and the fastest time in the nation to that point this season. Lott’s time places her in a tie for the fifth all-time collegiate best, and the world record is 12.21, barely a half-second faster.
It seems every time Lott steps onto the track these days, she sets another record, and she receives accolades at every turn. In the first four months of 1997 alone, she set several meet records, two BYU records, two WAC records, and two collegiate records. She also eclipsed her personal best in nine events (some of them more than once), was named an All-American for the sixth time, and received Athlete of the Week honors twice from the WAC and three times from Trackwire Magazine. And at the WAC indoor track and field championships in February, she captured the title of “World Best” for her 7.30- second jaunt of the 55 meter hurdles (the 55 meter hurdles is considered a world best, not a world record, because it is only run in the United States).
As impressive as all of this is, the inspiring piece of the equation is that a year ago, Lott could barely walk. During a March 1996 intramural basketball game, the American Fork, Utah, native tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, an injury that sometimes ends careers.
“I was really discouraged right at first because I was in the best shape of my life,” she says. “Then all of a sudden I couldn’t walk.”
The injury came after an outstanding sophomore year that included four All-America honors, the 1995 Utah Sportswoman of the Year Award, the 1995 Multiple Sclerosis Female Athlete of the Year Award, and a WAC championship meet in which Lott, by herself, outscored five teams. The injury also came just a few months before the Olympic trials, for which Lott had qualified.
But in June 1996, instead of racing in Atlanta against the best in the country for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, Lott found herself at the outdoor track in Provo preparing for her first run since the injury. The doctor said she could do 440 yards.
“So one lap?” she responded in frustration. Used to heavy workouts, Lott almost didn’t consider one lap to be worth the effort. But it turned out one lap was all she could do. “I died,” she recalls. “I could not breathe.” Winded, the All-American tried to hide her exhaustion from other runners as she walked slowly off the track. The next day, Lott was back at the track. This time she ran two laps. Steadily, she worked her way back into condition, and by September, she was training with the team.
In January, Lott faced her first meet back–the opening contest of the indoor track season–with a bit of intrepidation. “My times weren’t anywhere close to where they had been, and so I was kind of scared,” she admits. But in her first race, the 55 meter hurdles, she surprised herself by breaking her personal best of 7.64 seconds with a time of 7.49. A few weeks later, Lott broke her new personal best with a 7.43 race (converted from an 8.08-second 60 meter hurdle race). And then at the WAC indoor championships in Fort Collins, Colo.–almost exactly 11 months after her injury–Lott ran the 55 meter hurdles faster than any woman ever had. Her official time was 7.30 seconds.
“The race itself was unbelievable,” she says. “It just felt so fast. In the weeks following that, I’ve thought that I never want to break another record because everything has felt so slow since then. It just felt incredibly fast. The hurdles were flying at me.”
It should feel fast. In 1989, Jackie Joyner-Kersee did it in 7.37, the U.S. record until Lott came along. Michelle Freeman, a Jamaican, owned the previous NCAA record and world best at 7.34, a mark she made in 1992. But now Tiffany Lott holds the first slot, and she also claims the second best time–7.31–which she ran two days after the first.
To get to the point, “She’s fast,” says R. Craig Poole, BYU women’s track coach. But Lott is more than just fast. Her crowning competition is the Heptathlon, consisting of seven events: 100 meter hurdles, 200 meter dash, 800 meter run, long jump, high jump, shot put, and javelin. She was the nation’s top-rated high school female heptathlete her junior and senior years, and her freshman and sophomore years at BYU she won the WAC heptathlon championship and finished sixth in the NCAA competition, not to mention placing well in national and international competitions. At the Texas Relays meet this April, Lott improved on her personal best heptathlon score by 400 points, scoring 6,042–a meet record. (The world record, set by Joyner-Kersee at the 1988 Olympics, is 7,291.)
Poole praises Lott’s talent, saying she is easy to coach. “She can change skills almost immediately to be more effective,” he says.
But Lott chooses to credit other factors. Her quick recovery from the injury she says is a God-given ability to heal quickly, and the success she has had since coming back she chalks up to good coaching. And the world best? “Yep, the doctor put a bionic knee in me–helped me set all sorts of records with it,” she says.
While some credit must be given to contributing factors, surely much of Lott’s success must be attributed to Lott herself, who has been running since elementary school when she signed up for a summer track program coached by the father of Windy Jorgensen. Jorgensen and Lott, along with Melinda Boice Hale, grew up in the same American Fork neighborhood and ran track together at American Fork High School until half-way through their junior year when Lott moved to Leeds, Utah, and began attending Pine View High School in St. George. Now the three are running together again at BYU, where they have each received All-American honors and have been part of Poole’s winning tradition (since the women’s track team has been competing in the WAC, they have won every outdoor championship and six of seven indoor championships).
Lott is quick to point to Poole’s coaching as the secret to her success this season, but Poole speaks of Lott’s hard work, dedication, and goal setting. A few days before leaving for the Texas Relays in Austin, Lott stated her two most recent goals: to break 6,000 points in the heptathlon and to run the 100 meter hurdles in less than 13 seconds. Within a week and a half, she exceeded both marks.
But Lott isn’t one to talk about her successes, says Poole. “All this glory and everything has not gone to her head at all. She’s just Tiffany Lott.” And for that, Poole is grateful. On the track, Lott isn’t a prima donna seeking her own glory. Instead, she lifts her teammates, sharing the skills she learns and praising their successes. “She is a teacher within the members of the team,” says Poole. And in meets, she sets her sights on helping the team win.
Although at the indoor WAC championships Lott set a world best, she looks to BYU’s WAC championship as the highlight of the meet. “I had no idea what the record was, and so to break it–it didn’t seem that big to me. All my thoughts at the time were going into the championship and winning it as a team,” she says. “To break the record–yeah, it was nice. It was just the icing on the cake. But the cake was winning the team championship.”