Photo: Jais Ward is one of the top seventh-grade athletes in the country in 2019
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In the lead-up to The Flo Golden South Classic in May, MileSplit is featuring a handful of athletes searching for big performances beyond their state championship seasons. Today, we bring you a Q & A with one of the top young runners in the country, a seventh-grader from Heathwood Hall (SC) who's already posting some of the top times of her class. Check out everything Jais Ward had to say about her season, her goals and hopes in the years to come.
Your season has gone really well thus far. Within the 7th-grade class you're ranked No. 3 in the 400m (59.87), No. 2 in the 800m (2:21.01) and No. 6 in the 1600m (5:15.58). How would you describe all this early success?
My grandmother (Catherine Lempesis) helps coach me. She and Coach (Willis) Ware say "this is only the beginning." I'm excited about my performances so far, but I've also tried to stay calm. I just strive to run faster times because I know there are a lot of meets and new times being added to the national rankings. I prefer not to think about the rankings a lot and just run my best every race.
At this stage in your career, it's really about building a passion for the sport. What do you really love about track and field right now?
I absolutely love the excitement of the sport and knowing that anytime, any race, anywhere, anybody can win. I find it cool that people try to predict who will win and the times runners will run. Nothing is guaranteed and you run for yourself. I'm always learning as I compete. But the best is knowing competition will just help me get stronger and faster.
What's your favorite race and why?
I love the 1600m. My favorite race was my fourth-place finish last year at the 2018 USATF Junior Olympics Track and Field National Championships. I ran with the best in the nation and was pushed (for a fast time) and broke five minutes. That race made me realize what success feels like after a lot of hard work, and I was excited to run more competitive races.
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What's been your best performance and why?
This season my favorite race was the Coaches Classic in South Carolina. I ran with some of the best runners in the Southeast region and I loved hearing the announcements about other athletes being nationally ranked as they competed in their events. It was my first mile race and I ran a 5:15, which would also be my fastest 1600m time at an unofficial 5:13. That race was a true gut check and really tested my strength.
You're signed up to compete at the Golden South Classic, which is a week after the South Carolina state championships. What races will you compete in at Golden South and what are your hopes for the postseason?
I will run the mile and 800m. My goal is to set PRs in each event. My hopes this postseason are to run well at Golden South and improve my times. I'm really looking forward to the New Balance Nationals in June because I'll be running in the middle school mile and 800 races. It will be fun to compete against middle schoolers from other states and see how I do.
How do you, personally, get better as an athlete every day? Are there small things you concentrate on?
I train every day during the track season, and it may be something as light as just doing 2-3 miles and my strengthening exercises. I roll out every night, do all my stretches and ice my legs. I also take salt baths to relax my legs and help them recover. I don't use weights yet, so when I do my strengthening exercises, I use my own body weight.
There are a lot of great high school track and field athletes in 2019. Do you look up to anyone right now in your state, or across the country? How do they inspire you?
I really look up to Katelyn Tuohy. She runs the events I run, is only a junior and is crushing records. I'd love to be as accomplished as her in my high school years and to run really fast times.
What's the biggest piece of advice you've gotten that's been important for you?
The main one is don't lead the race because the leader is usually working harder. My grandmother also tells me not to overthink the race--focus on what I'm supposed to do and run my pace. I know if I go out too fast, it will cost me at the end of the race.
Favorite athlete, on the track or in another sport?
Even though she's a sprinter, I love Sanya Richards-Ross. When I ran track with my recreational team, Coach Doug would give each runner an award named after a successful track and field athlete. I always received the Sanya Richards-Ross award. I was so proud because she is also a strong, independent woman when she's off the track.
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Favorite pre-race meal?
I love spaghetti and meatballs. It provides protein and carbs and does not affect how I run the next day.
I love interval workouts. My favorite is 6x600s with a 400 recovery.
Favorite pump-up song?
Definitely "Sucker" by the Jonas Brothers and "I'm Blessed" by Charlie Wilson.
Long-term goals down the road?
I'd love to run Division I in college and compete at the Olympics. I want to become a professional runner and make a career out of what I love to do! But I also like science and math and am interested in biomedical engineering and orthopedic surgery.