Michelle Atherley wears the tattoo on the inside of her left arm like a badge of triumph: “My ambition is my weaponry,’’ it reads.
“I just like the line,’’ Atherley said. “It’s a quote from a song. Where I’m from it’s pretty difficult to get a scholarship or anything outside of the town.’’
“Pretty difficult’’ doesn’t even being to describe the accomplishment Atherley achieved last week at the NCAA Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships in Birmingham, Alabama.
Atherley, a 23-year-old University of Miami senior who competed her freshman year for Auburn, became the 11th Miami Hurricane in history to win a national title in track and field. Hers came in the pentathlon, a grueling event that combines the 60-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, long jump and 800-meter run.
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After winning the Atlantic Coast Conference indoor title last month, Atherley amassed a UM-record 4,547 points at the Birmingham CrossPlex to win the title, running the 60 in a blazing 8.16 seconds. She set a personal best of 1.78 meters (5.8 feet) in the high jump, another personal best of 13.01 meters (42.6 feet) in the shot put, leaped 6.07 meters (19.9 feet) in the long jump and clinched the national title by running the 800 meters in 2 minutes 14.34 seconds.
“My legs were burning and I never looked at the [scoreboard] until I crossed the line,’’ Atherley, who is obviously gifted in all five events but far and away the best collegiate pentathlete hurdler in the nation, said of the moment she won the national title. “When I could breathe and stand up I saw it. I never really thought it would be me.’’
Amy Deem, UM’s director of track and field/cross-country, called the title “a huge accomplishment.’’
“Michelle is very determined and we’re so proud, said Deem, the former U.S. Women’s Olympic Track and Field coach who has led UM women to several national individual titles since she took over the program in 1990. “Most people only have to do one event to be a national champion. You have to put together five events for what she does.”
The 5-8 Atherley moved from Coral Springs to North Port, in Sarasota County, when she was 5, and graduated in 2015 from Port Charlotte High. She was an accomplished gymnast before switching to track and field in high school. Her father, who died in a boating accident when she was 10, was from Belize, giving her “technically, dual citizenship,’’ she said, and a possible decision of who to represent should she qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. She will earn her UM degree in political science in the spring, and then take graduate classes next year when she competes solely during the NCAA outdoor track and field season to finish her collegiate career.
The 2019 outdoor season begins Friday and Saturday for the Hurricanes when they host the Hurricane Invitational, though Atherley will sit out for that meet as she trains for the heptathlon, an outdoor designation which adds the javelin and 200-meter run to the same events of the pentathlon. The heptathlon is competed in the Olympics.
“The Olympics would be a perfect transition from college,’’ said Atherley, who has overcome a torn patella tendon she sustained in her right knee in the spring of 2017, causing her to learn to high jump off her left leg instead of the compromised right one, which she said is now completely healed.
“I’d like to think I’m a realistic person, so I guess I can start with it being a dream,’’ Atherley said. “Tokyo would be amazing.’’