* Centre College's JP Vaught broke the NCAA Division III 200m outdoor record this spring before it was re-broken
"I definitely had the DI or bust mentality coming out of high school, like I feel most people do. And then when I realized I didn't want to bust, I had to change my ways and really look at the options I had in front of me."
Now in his junior year at Centre College, a small NCAA Division III school in Danbury, Kentucky, sprinter JP Vaught has learned to expect the unexpected.
Vaught qualified for his first NCAA DIII Indoor Championships in 2020, only for the meet -- and the rest of his rookie season -- to be shut down because of COVID-19. In 2021, he successfully doubled in the 100m and 200m, claiming his first two outdoor national titles. At the 2022 NCAA DIII Indoor Championships, a disappointing false start in the 60m final motivated him enough to shatter the 200m championship record with a winning time of 21.37 seconds.
Heading into outdoors in 2022, Vaught was ready for anything. He had big goals and was excited to see how his winter training would pay off.
But getting to race one of his running idols, Olympian Christian Coleman, en route to breaking the all-time DIII 200m record?
Definitely not on his bingo card for the 2022 track and field season.
"I had to stop fan-girling so I could warm up, and then I went into the race with zero expectations at all," Vaught said. "I was just thankful that I got the opportunity to be there and to get pushed to run fast."
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Lilah Drafts-Johnson is a graduate of Oberlin College, where she was a double major, and a 2018 NCAA Division IIII champion in the 400mH. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Maryland and has written for D3 Glory Days.
Vaught placed fourth overall against a competitive field that included Coleman at the University of Kentucky's Track and Field Invitational this April. He ran a wind-legal 20.66 to break the DIII all-time record he previously shared with SUNY Oneonta's Sean Bernstein.
The record was broken again by Eric Gregory of Gallaudet University just this past weekend, but Vaught's mark remains as one of the top 300 fastest times in the world this year. It would rank him second in NCAAA Division II and No. 45 on the Division I descending order list.
Vaught hails from Somerset, Kentucky, where he competed for Southwestern High School and won the 2017 Class AAA state titles in the 100m and 200m dash his sophomore year.
Although his times and accolades made him a competitive recruit, his insistence on playing collegiate football, plus some senior season injuries, gave him limited options.
"I definitely had the DI or bust mentality coming out of high school, like I feel most people do," he said. "And then when I realized I didn't want to bust, I had to change my ways and really look at the options I had in front of me."
Vaught credits his parents, who encouraged him to consider Centre for its strong academic programs, and for helping him to finalize the decision.
"I knew sports were going to end eventually and I needed a good education under my belt," said Vaught, who majors in history and is a part of Colonels United, a student group that advocates for diversity and inclusion within Centre's intercollegiate athletic programs.
"I had to stop fan-girling so I could warm up, and then I went into the race with zero expectations at all. I was just thankful that I got the opportunity to be there and to get pushed to run fast."
Once Vaught arrived at Centre, his athletic priorities shifted. He competed for one season on Centre's football team, but now focuses solely on track and field. Vaught's primary event coach, Edwin Hagans, spoke highly of both Vaught's work ethic and sportsmanship.
"He can make and consistently maintain changes initiated in practice and convert them into the competitions," Hagans said. "If a teammate asks JP for help with starting blocks or drive phase work, he has been willing to step up. He takes his time with [teammates] and explains it to them as if he were me. As a coach, it's pretty cool to see those things happen."
Centre College track and field already has a reputation for producing intra-divisionally competitive runners, most notably Annie Rodenfels, a three-time Division III NCAA Champion and 2020 Olympic Trials qualifier in the 3,000m steeplechase.
And perhaps the success of athletes like Rodenfels and Vaught showcases why high school students should consider all of their recruitment options, regardless of division.
"Look at their coaches, look at their athletes, look at their academics," Vaught said. "Are athletes getting faster when they come in? Or are they getting worse or injured?
"Don't worry about what other people are doing. I worked hard until my time came. And I couldn't be more thankful for when it did and how it happened."
Vaught will have an additional year of collegiate eligibility after he graduates from Centre next spring.
He's on the lookout for a program where he can continue to develop his talents, with his sights set on the 2024 Olympic Trials. And his plan until then?
"I want to win as many national championships as possible," he said.
Vaught says he will look to defend his sprinting titles and recapture the Division III all-time 200m record at the NCAA Championships from May 26-28 at the SPIRE institute in Geneva, Ohio.
At that point, it might not be so unexpected anymore.