Ebony Morrison was 10 years old when her physical education teacher at Miami’s Vineland Elementary began racing her against the boys.
“I beat them all,” said the fashion-forward University of Miami hurdler who wears green-and-pink Betty Boop socks with “Sassy’’ on them to honor her late mother, a former Miami Killian High and Morgan State track star who was fond of the cartoon character before succumbing to breast cancer two years ago at age 42. “He suggested to my mom I should start running track.”
Morrison, one of 12 Hurricanes in Eugene, Oregon, this week competing in the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships, is still beating them all — women, that is. She crushed the UM school record in the 100-meter hurdles at the NCAA East Preliminary meet in Jacksonville on May 28, astounded to realize she had finally shattered the 13-second barrier (12.76 seconds) and “solidified’’ her place in the U.S. Olympic Trials.
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This time, Morrison’s mind raced … to her late mother, Stacey, who battled breast cancer for nine years. Struggling to cope with her mother’s death and too far from her grandmother, Rita Mackins, Morrison transferred to Miami from Auburn after the 2014-2015 academic year. She said she was “about to give up’’ on smashing the 13-second plateau because she thought she had reached her peak in track.
“But the Lord blessed me,” said Morrison, who graduated from Miami’s Robert Morgan Educational Center and ran for three years at Southridge before transferring to Killian for her senior track season. “I’m an only child and the Olympics were never in my mind because I’ve struggled so much. Now, whatever God puts on my plate, I’m taking.”
Morrison is one of nine to qualify for the NCAA nationals from UM’s 14th-ranked women’s track and field team. Additionally, three members of the men’s team are competing in the trials.
Four others besides Morrison — 200- and 400-meter sprinters Shakima Wimbley of Fort Lauderdale and dual citizen Aiyanna Stiverne of Plantation and Montreal; high-jumper Dakota Dailey-Harris of Providence, Rhode Island; and Canadian pole vaulter Alysha Newman — have already qualified for their respective Olympic Trials.
Newman set the Canadian pole-vault record at a UM meet on April 9 with a 4.60-meter mark, fourth-best in the world at that point, and is expected to compete for Canada in the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“The biggest thing about being on this team is that everybody has done their part to contribute,” Newman said. “I don’t think I’d be where I am now without my teammates pushing me. It’s a long, long road, and we’ve all become family.”
Amy Deem, UM’s director of track and field and cross-country and coach of the 2012 U.S. Women’s Olympic Track and Field Team, said the Canes have the best, “most well-rounded’’ women’s team they’ve had in years.
“It’s a really exciting time for our program,” Deem said.
Morrison’s rise notwithstanding, Wimbley, a junior out of Dillard High, is Miami’s best chance for the Olympics. Wimbley won a silver medal in the 400 at last year’s Pan American Games, qualifying for those games with her eighth-place finish at the U.S. Championships. Wimbley’s Atlantic Coast Conference gold medal-winning time of 50.90 seconds in the 400 currently ranks third in the NCAA.
“We have some amazing athletes at UM,’’ said Wimbley, who is competing in the 400 and both women’s relays this week, then adding the 200 at the trials. “My biggest goal is to make the Olympic team. I can’t even put into words what it would mean to me.
“But I also want to give us a national championship before I leave Miami.”
Morrison, a motion picture production major, wants to earn first-team All-American status by making the finals in the 100 hurdles. She also runs the 400-meter relay.
The Olympics for Morrison are more of a dream but one that Deem won’t rule out, even though the UM coach wants her athletes to focus on the NCAA nationals before the next step.
“She’s a very strong kid and very grounded,” Deem said of Morrison. “We’ve had to make some technical improvements, but she’s strong, she’s fast, she’s determined. The hurdles is a funny event and the U.S. is so deep right now, but anything can happen in that race.
“Whether it happens this summer or in the next couple of years remains to be seen.’’
Morrison’s grandmother, former Killian runner Rita Mackins, 63, said having Morrison return to Miami last year “was such a blessing.’’ Morrison’s mother was Mackins’ only child, and both raised Ebony. Stacey Morrison, who earned her master’s degree in theater, taught drama at FAMU, Miami-Dade College and the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Miami.
“Her mom had a road map for her,” said Mackins, who prays with her granddaughter by phone before every track meet. “Get the full scholarship, keep your grades up and be disciplined.
“She’ll say, ‘Grandma, I’m ready to pray,’ ” Mackins said.
“That’s my baby. Track and school have made her a better young lady, but she was a good kid already.’’