Shakima Wimbley grew so tall so fast when she was 14 years old it was almost like she had an out-of-body experience. She could see herself running, but she didn’t recognize the girl who couldn’t keep up with her giraffe-like legs.
“I had a weird growth spurt in middle school when I couldn’t control my limbs,” Wimbley said. “I even walked awkwardly. I was very skinny and fragile.”
Wimbley grew from 5-9 to 5-11 ½ in less than a year. She was a promising sprinter, but she was so frustrated that she considered quitting the sport.
If she had, she wouldn’t be a University of Miami star on her way to the NCAA Track and Field Championships as the favorite in the 400 meters. She wouldn’t be ranked sixth in the world with a personal best of 50.84 in the one-lap test of speed and strength. She wouldn’t be on the list of potential 2016 Olympians.
“A lot of people have believed in me,” Wimbley said. “It’s just been a question of believing in myself.”
Wimbley has had to work as hard at building her confidence as she has at training for her event. In this, her sophomore season, she thinks she turned the corner. She will find out more at the national meet starting Wednesday at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. She will be joined by eight other UM athletes, including her three teammates on the 1,600-meter relay.
“She’s been in three national championships and hasn’t made a final yet because she has struggled to envision herself at the championship level,” said Amy Deem, UM director of track and field and cross-country. “She’s always looked up to the top runners, and now she’s on the same stage with them. It’s been a matter of convincing her, ‘Yes, you do belong.’ ”
Wimbley, now almost 6-2, has always been self-conscious about her height. She went through the years when she was uncoordinated, got teased and mocked.
“She was shy because she was always the tallest, and kids aren’t always nice,” Deem said. “I said, ‘We can’t change it; embrace it!’ ”
Embracing her stature will allow Wimbley to capitalize on it. Like Jamaica’s 6-5 Usain Bolt, Wimbley can use her long legs to generate a longer stride and an advantage over opponents who have to take more steps per race.
“I can cover more ground with less energy,” she said. “Usain Bolt is odd like me, and it’s cool to see someone that tall beating dudes who are powerful and quick.”
Said Deem: “You put somebody 6-2 next to somebody 5-7 — with her stride the 400 is the perfect event.”
Wimbley, thin at 147 pounds, admires the willowy Allyson Felix. But she knows one of her priorities has to be developing more strength and muscle to push her turnover rate, and she has made the weight room one of her favorite habitats this year.
“Coming into college she could barely do a leg lift,” Deem said. “Her levers are so long it’s even more important to have core strength. It took her a while to adapt to her increased strength, and coming off the curve she was a little out of control. But she has really improved. What’s fun about coaching her is that you can show her something on video, and she gets it.”
Deem, coach of Olympians and coach of the 2012 U.S. women’s team, is learning, too.
“I’ve never coached anyone that tall,” she said. “Debbie Ferguson was a power runner. Lauryn Williams had incredible frequency.”
The mental side of Wimbley’s development has also been a challenge. Naturally humble, Wimbley tended to defer to her more decorated opponents. The Fort Lauderdale Dillard High graduate cites two milestones in her progress: Winning the Broward County 2A title as a senior and winning the Atlantic Coast Conference outdoor title in ACC and UM record time last month.
“I put people on a pedestal, and it’s like I would get scared racing against them,” she said. “Winning ACC Freshman of the Year — that was a shock. But that type of recognition made me open my eyes and say, ‘I am somebody, and if I keep going, I can be somebody.’ It’s been hard to break the habit of comparing myself to other people and being intimidated by other people.”
Deem said the NCAA meet will be another chance for Wimbley to focus on her race plan and not worry about runners in adjacent lanes — a mistake she made when she finished third at the U.S. junior championships last year. She will have to do the same thing when she competes in the U.S. national meet with a chance to make the team going to this summer’s world championships in Beijing, and she’s up against the likes of Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross.
Wimbley credits Dillard High coach Davidson Gill with having faith in her during her gawky stage.
“He had me do a lot of box jumps and plyometrics,” she said. “He convinced me not to give up.”
Deem also saw Wimbley’s potential.
“She came to the state meet to see others and she noticed me and believed in my potential,” Wimbley said. “When she came to my house to recruit me and she was in the yard, I told my mom, ‘She’s here.’ I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t cry but I was screaming inside, ‘She’s here!’ ”
Wimbley remains close to her family and visits home often. She likes to go to the beach and watch Orange is the New Black on Netflix.
Wimbley is ranked third in the NCAA in the 200 meters with a time of 22.43 — an ACC and UM record, but she won’t be running the 400/200 double in Eugene because there’s only a 30-minute gap between the events.
She and relay teammates Kelsey Balkwill, Taneisha Cordell and Anthonia Moore are seeded seventh with a best time of 3:30.22.
Balkwill also qualified in the 400 hurdles after overcoming injuries the past two seasons. Alysha Newman, a former All-American, will compete in the pole vault. Artie Burns and Christian Cook will run the 110 hurdles, Precious Ogunleye will throw the hammer, and John Patrick-Friday qualified in the triple jump.
For Wimbley, an NCAA title would provide validation.
“I’ve had to take a step back and become more confident and finally something clicked, and I’ve moved forward,” she said. “In Eugene, I just want to cross the line knowing I gave it everything.”