Sabrina Southerland placed a bet on herself when she left her metropolitan East Coast life behind last summer to move across the country for a one-and-done season with the Oregon track and field program.
It’s paying off more than she ever expected.
Southerland is the form-chart favorite to win the women’s 800 meters this week during the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field, a remarkable development for the fifth-year senior who was rarely a serious contender on the national stage during her previous four seasons at Georgetown.
“Nothing is guaranteed so whether I’m the favorite or not doesn’t make a difference to me,” Southerland said. “I feel like I can win.”
There’s no reason to think otherwise, not after the season Southerland has been having.
She’s the NCAA Indoor champion, the Pac-12 champion and two weekends ago in Sacramento she ran the fasted time in the quarterfinals of the NCAA West Preliminary meet with a personal-best and NCAA-leading 2 minutes, .72 seconds.
“I am pretty surprised at the results,” Southerland admitted. “I didn’t think all of this would happen in just a short amount of time, in just a couple of months. But I feel like I worked hard to do all of these things, so I would hope it would work out.”
The semifinals of the 800 are at 5:44 p.m. Thursday during the opening day of the women’s meet. It will be Southerland’s third career appearance at the NCAA Outdoor Championships though she has never made the finals after failing to advance out of the semifinals as a Hoya when she was a sophomore in 2015 and junior in 2016.
She redshirted the 2017 season and then graduated with degrees in sociology, women’s studies and African American studies. Feeling like she hadn’t pulled the most out her abilities at Georgetown, where her PR never dropped below 2:03.10, she packed up and headed to Eugene for one final season.
It wasn’t an easy transition for the 22-year-old from New York, who is getting her master’s degree in nonprofit management through the Planning, Public Policy and Management department at Oregon.
“I completely changed my entire life, moving from to the West Coast from the East,” she said. “I feel like it took a lot of trust to believe that it would all work out. I took a big risk but I promised myself I would make the most of it.”
She found the perfect landing spot at Oregon, which has dominated the women’s 800 in recent years. Between Laura Roesler in 2014 and Raevyn Rogers the past three years, the Ducks have won four straight outdoor titles in the 800 and now four of the last five NCAA Indoor titles.
If she wins the title this week, it will be the fourth time a Duck has accomplished the season sweep of NCAA 800 titles in the past five years.
“To see her come to Oregon and really put in the work for the years she wasn’t able to showcase her talent as well as she wanted to, and come here and fix it in months, that shows how determined she was,” said Rogers, who was Team USA teammates with Southerland in 2014 during the IAAF World Junior Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field.
Southerland credits her improvement this season to focusing more on speed training than distance training, a staple of Oregon’s program under coach Robert Johnson.
“That’s something we do with that event group, the speed and power things, and it’s shown to work, at least with the last few people that we’ve had,” he said. “They grasp it and learn it. The distance piece is something that can be acquired throughout the year. However, the speed piece is something that needs to be continually touched on.”
For as well as Southerland has been running the past few months, it wasn’t until the NCAA Indoor meet that she really saw the results of her training. She entered the meet with the slowest qualifying time out of the 16 entries at 2:04.38 and then ran 2:03.57 to advance out of the semifinals.
In the finals, her speed work paid off as she kicked into the lead with 100 meters to go and cruised uncontested through the finish line in 2:01.55.
“I felt so excited when I went to (Texas) A&M for NCAA Indoors, I was like the loudest one there because I was so excited about how she was able to continue the Oregon legacy,” said Rogers, who turned pro after her junior season in 2017. “People probably thought the 800 program was going to drift off, but that also shows what a great job coach Johnson is doing.”
Southerland kept her momentum going into the spring, running a then-PR 2:01.44 at the Mt. SAC Relays in her first outdoor 800 of the season. She followed with her win at the Pac-12 meet and then dropped her PR again at the NCAA West Preliminaries.
With just one meet left in her collegiate career, Southerland’s decision to move west, it seems, was a wager worth making.
“I just felt like I wasn’t living up to my full potential on the track and I needed a change,” she said. “I was just consistently running the same times. I needed a breakthrough.”