THE PANDEMIC HAS BROUGHT Sharika Nelvis back to Jonesboro, Arkansas, where years before as one of Arkansas State’s Red Wolves, she delivered NCAA hurdle titles indoors and out in ’14, as well as earning the Honda Sports Award as the nation’s top collegiate women’s trackster.
“We were in Alabama,” she explains, “training for the 2020 season, and then everything started closing down. We were fortunate enough that we were practicing at a high school that didn’t have a gate. As far as track workouts, we didn’t miss out on that, but we couldn’t get in the gym.”
Will Williams, Nelvis’s boyfriend and coach (and himself an athlete of note, having won the ’18 NCAA long jump title for Texas A&M), landed the jumps coach position at Arkansas State, and the two moved to a better training environment.
“We have facilities available to us. We have a whole garage gym, so it’s a lot easier now,” says Nelvis, now a volunteer assistant on head coach Jim Patchell’s staff. Is it nice to wear the team colors again? She quickly clarifies with a laugh: “I always wore the colors.”
For all athletes, the past year has been a difficult one, and the 30-year-old Nelvis is no exception. “A lot of times I don’t look at the news because it’s always negative things. Even on social media, there’s so much negative stuff. So I really just stay in a positive mindset: be aware, but stay positive about all the things that are going on right now.”
Her outdoor season consisted of a lone European meet in mid-August that she’d rather forget: “I traveled overseas, which was weird because we were waiting and we never knew what was going to be going on. It was just silent—no one knew.” Finally, arrangements were made to compete in Hungary’s Gyulai Memorial. “My coach was like, ‘Go ahead, you have nothing to lose.’”
A 13.09 for 6th was not exactly what Nelvis had been hoping for. “I was very disappointed,” she admits. “I can win and run a slow time, but when I lose and run a slow time, I’m just like, ‘Agh!’ I’m aware of the season we’ve had and it just hit me a little harder than normal. I was like, ‘Dang. I shouldn’t have come over here.’
“My agent had to talk me into going to a second meet because I was pissed. I’m like, ‘I’m not going.’ My coach was like, ‘I mean, we’re already over here and you might as well.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ But you know when you’re not into it, any small thing I’m like, ‘Oh there’s my cue!’
“So we had travel difficulties and I was like, ‘You know what, don’t even worry about it. I’m going to go home.’ It was hard, but I was just like, ‘This isn’t who you are. So just get over it.’ I know what I’m capable of doing and so we’re just moving forward.”
Moving forward is something Nelvis has done her whole life. She had a childhood marked by tragedy, losing both parents before she was 8. “I don’t know,” she says. “I just stay in my own little world. Stuff happens, you’ve just got to keep pushing, you’ve got to keep pushing it all the time. That’s what I did and that’s what I’m doing and that’s why I look at hurdling as, ‘Listen, it’s just not my time.’ Everything happens for a reason and so when it’s my time, I’ll know.”
She loves to laugh and laughs often; it’s just who she is. She recounts the story of a college friend: “I told him both my parents are dead, and he’s like, ‘You don’t act like it.’ And I’m like, ‘How does somebody act like that?’ I mean, I guess, but no, I’m a happy person.”
Nelvis has ranked in the top 5 in the world 5 of the last 5 years. In high school she ran a modest 14.03 for Northside of Memphis. At Arkansas State she blossomed working with Patchell, hitting a best of 12.71 in ’14 and taking the NCAA crown in 12.52w that year.
The move to the pros, she says, wasn’t nearly as hard as the transition from high school to college: “The big difference was coming to college and finding out, ‘Oh, there are greater people here. There are faster people than me!’ But by the time I got to the professional level, it was just like, ‘OK.’”
That first year in the big leagues went well. She rocked a 12.34 PR in the heats at USATF, won two Diamond League meets and made the finals at the Worlds in Beijing. She finished No. 2 in the World Rankings.
The next year she took her knocks and finished 5th in the Olympic Trials. Solid seasons in ’17 and ’18 came through consistency in what is one of the most competitive events on the track. Then in ’19 she repeated as USATF Indoor champion, but outdoors finished 4th at the nationals, narrowly missing the Doha team with her 12.66.
“Like any other athlete would feel, I was disappointed,” she says. “There’s been a lot of moments when I’ve been disappointed, but I’ve always bounced back because when it’s my time, it’s going to be my time.”
She closed out the season with a win in the U.S. vs Europe meet and a No. 5 World Ranking.
Now she is preparing for the Olympic year all over again. “We’re basically sticking to our usual schedule,” she says, even including the occasional early season mile run. “I had three weeks where I had to run, just once a week. It was not, it was not pretty at all, but I got through each time, so that was a good thing. But it was not something I would want to do ever,” she says with a laugh.
Looking ahead to the Trials, she analyzes what she needs to do to give the best chance of making it to Tokyo, explaining, “It’s definitely tough. Honestly, you just gotta let loose. You gotta stop thinking, because I’m an overthinker. If I’m just thinking, ‘I need to do this, I need to do that,’ I’m gonna mess myself up. So it’s just like, you have to stop thinking, run and have fun. That’s what it all boils down to for me. Let it happen, don’t try to force it.”