Mitchell Off to Speedy Start at K-State
Mitchell, a freshman sprinter with the Wildcat track and field team who has already raced her way into the program's record book, came to K-State from West Oso High School in Corpus Christi, Texas, and has been quick to impress.
"People just don't do what she's done as a freshman," said K-State head coach Cliff Rovelto earlier this week. "You just don't improve the way she's improved in that short amount of time. It's not possible. There's not magic dust that you just sprinkle on her, so it's obvious she has a huge, huge amount of natural ability."
Mitchell has already broken four school records and earned All-America status earlier this year at the NCAA Indoor Championships. In just a short amount of time, this 19-year-old has already become one of the greatest track and field runners in K-State history, and she is on course to excel with the conference's best at this weekend's Big 12 Outdoor Championships in Ames, Iowa.
However, if you watched her compete on the track of West Oso High, you'd never guess how far her athletic abilities would take her in just one year.
"What stuck out to me initially about A'Keyla was, I felt like she ran fast enough to give herself a chance to win," said assistant coach Vincent Johnson, the mastermind behind recruiting Mitchell to K-State. "She competed really well in high school. She wasn't really technically sound, but she competed really well and I thought that was a good attribute to have. She wasn't one of those kids who ran track all year round, but I knew her potential, and it was really good. Her ceiling was, and is, really high because of her ability to run."
In high school, Mitchell enjoyed sports. Regardless of what she was playing, she was a fierce competitor, and, along with track and field, she played basketball, volleyball and even ran cross country.
"She didn't go to all the big meets. She wasn't trying to get to every meet. She was just being a kid," said Johnson about Mitchell's high school career. "She was doing basketball during basketball season, volleyball during volleyball season and she ran track when it was time to run track, and she excelled at all of them."
He saw her potential, her coachable qualities and - no pun intended - ran with it. He began to form a relationship with Mitchell, her family and her high school coaches. He wanted her to know that, sure, she could run fast anywhere she went to college, but what made K-State special was that they would care for her both on and off the track.
"I made it very difficult for someone to come in and just show her a few rings or show her a few banners," explained Johnson on recruiting Mitchell. "I focused more on the person than the athlete because running fast, that was going to be inevitable wherever she decided to go, but what was important to me was establishing a relationship with her. I told her, 'I cannot guarantee that you'll go into the Olympic Games, I can not guarantee that you're going to be a doctor or whatever it is you choose to study, but I can guarantee that you will be well taken care of while at K-State.'"
To Mitchell, that statement made a world of difference.
"I'm not going to lie, Texas A&M, UT, Texas Tech, they're really, really fast schools, but I didn't want to go somewhere where, because I'm a freshman, they wouldn't work on me because the majority of the team is fast," said Mitchell. "At other schools, they're going to work on the seniors and trying to get them to the Olympics. But when I came to K-State, Coach Johnson and Coach Rovelto focused on us freshmen, too. They focused on what we can and are going to do."
And this season, the coaches' focus has paid off.
In her debut year with K-State, Mitchell has been anything but ordinary. She broke K-State's 60-meter, 200-meter and 4x400 indoor records, while, most recently, broke the program's 100-meter dash record after clocking an 11.40 at the Brutus Hamilton Challenge in Berkeley, California, on April 25. Her efforts in the 100-meter dash - the first 100-meter dash of her career - broke a 20-plus year K-State record that was previously held by Latricia Joyner, who ran the event in 11.51 in 1991.
Mitchell was voted the Big 12's Outstanding Freshman of the Year after an indoor season where she finished with two All-America performances (200m and 4x400) and now has seven top-10 program marks across the indoor and outdoor seasons. With her No. 6 national ranking (No. 2 in the Big 12), Mitchell is currently the only freshman ranked in the nation's top-15 for the 200m.
She holds an impressive resume, to say the least, and according to Rovelto, she's just getting started.
"There are people her age around the world that have run similar times, but they've been training at a much, much higher level for a significant period of time," said Rovelto. "A'Keyla just hadn't done that. So, given what her training background is and what she's done, I think she's got still a lot of room for improvement."
A BRIGHT FUTURE AHEAD
"My goal is to get my name on those, right over there: NCAA Champions, Olympians... those are my goals," said Mitchell as she prepared for another day of practice at RV Christian Track. Wide-eyed and smiling, she pointed to the row of plaques featuring the names of K-State track and field stars who made it to the next level; Wildcats who were the best in the nation and who competed on the world's biggest stage.
She passes the neatly displayed plaques every day when she walks from the locker room to the track. She uses the plaques, the names, as motivation to give it her all; motivation to never give up.
"Every time I look at that, I just want my name to be up there," she said as she glanced at the plaques again. "I want my name to be on one of those. I walk by there every day before practice and every morning before weights.
"I want my name on one of those so, so bad."
This season alone has been proof of what Mitchell is capable of. She's hard working and determined - two qualities that will only lead to more success, according to her coaches.
"She's obviously going to contribute a great deal to this track program, but ultimately it's going to come down to how hard are you going to work?" said Rovelto about Mitchell's future. "Everybody kind of gets to that point where the improvements come quickly at first, but to continue to improve you then have to work exceptionally harder and you get smaller returns. It remains to be seen how she's going to address that."
Added Johnson, "She has potential to be as good as any of the sprinters that we know of in the US. I think if she continues to stay with it, continues training as hard as she does and continues to stay humble, she has the potential to be as good as anybody."
If Mitchell continues to follow her coaches' advice, her name will be among those plaques in no time.
BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIP ON THE HORIZON
There is, perhaps, no better time to be a member of the K-State women's track and field team than right now. Ranked No. 11 in the nation, this year's team is filled with record breakers. It's filled with student-athletes who motivate each other to continue working hard from the second they show up to train to the second they cool down, stretch out and go home.
Along with Mitchell, this year's roster is made up of record breakers in juniors Akela Jones (hurdles, long jump), Sara Savatovic (hammer throw) and Dani Winters (shot put), to name a few. Though Mitchell said her upperclassmen teammates inspire her, she has inspired them as well.
"I've seen nothing but hard work and diligence towards training. She loves this sport. It's her life," said Jones. "She does a lot of things that she doesn't want to do, but it makes her great. It is motivating to see someone that young and that hard working. She's inspiring to a lot of people; she's inspiring to this whole team."
Ready to go out, work hard and inspire again, Mitchell's goals as she looks forward to her first Big 12 Outdoor Championship are simple: she wants to run fast.
"I'm expecting to place, PR, run fast, and make my coaches happy," said Mitchell. "I just have to stay focused and keep my mind clear.
"I want to run fast. That's it."
This weekend's Big 12 Outdoor Track and Field Championship kicks off tomorrow morning at 10 a.m., at Cyclone Sports Complex. Not competing until day two of the championship, Mitchell will run on Saturday afternoon with the preliminary rounds of the running events set to begin at 3:30 p.m., and, if she continues on, she will compete in the finals on Sunday starting at 3 p.m.