Sharika Nelvis leaps life's hurdles

Sharika Nelvis is the reigning indoor 60-meter hurdle national champion, a five-time All-American and the first female in Arkansas State history to win an individual national championship. Justin Manning

There is a sound that anyone associated with the Arkansas State track team over the past four years knows.

It has filled buses, hotels and starting lines. It has interrupted sleep, conversations and focus, and more than once it has brought about a glare from a coach or two.

But Sharika Nelvis can't help it. She doesn't know how to contain her laughter. It bursts out of her like she bursts out of the starting blocks, and once she starts going, she can't be stopped -- on the track or with her laugh.

"If there's something that strikes her as funny," Arkansas State track coach Jim Patchell said, "you can certainly tell."

"She has the most distinct laughter," assistant coach Jason Brooks added. "But it's Sharika. It's exactly who she is."

She laughs so hard and so genuinely that it seems as though she has never felt pain.

But for the top-seeded 100-meter hurdler heading into this weekend's NCAA track and field championships in Eugene, Oregon, she can only be that high because she has been so low. Her pain has sculpted her, and her strength is a result.

Nelvis is the reigning indoor 60-meter hurdle national champion and a five-time All-American; she holds 10 school records and became the first female in Arkansas State athletic history to win an individual national championship. Yet even among her most impressive awards and accolades, her greatest accomplishment might just be that -- she still laughs.

It's hard to say that the events and people one doesn't remember can shape an individual. But the holes that remain and how one chooses to fill them -- that can easily define a person.

That, for Nelvis, is her childhood.

When she was 6 years old, her father committed suicide. When she was 7, her mother died. At that point, she and four siblings moved in with her maternal grandmother. Less than three years later, Nelvis' grandmother suffered a stroke, forcing the children to be split up and sent to different relatives.

The death of their two parents emotionally separated the kids. Now, physical distance did, as well.

During the next eight years, Sharika and her older sister Cordelrica -- who remain close to this day -- moved at least once a year. Sometimes they didn't have running water or electricity. They rarely found stability.

Nelvis doesn't like to talk about any of this. Today, at 24 years old, she barely discusses it. When pressed about her parents' deaths, she'll reveal only that her mother's was a natural death and her father's was an unnatural death.

And memories of her parents when they were living? She really doesn't have any.

She knows her father was tall and strong; her mother was short and toned. But that's only from photographs. She knows they are buried in Arkansas, but she doesn't visit their gravesites. Some people say she looks like her mom, but she's not so sure about that.

She doesn't know if any of her mannerisms are similar to her parents. Or if she got her laugh from her mom or her dad. She doesn't think either was a runner. But maybe they were. If she still spoke with her extended family, maybe someone would know.

What she knows is that even though her parents weren't there as she grew up, they still shaped her. She will run at nationals because of the strength that she found when she lost them.

She knows she has become a competitive runner because she refuses to give up. That was a lesson she learned at 7. She promised herself then she'd live in the moment and that her past wouldn't damn her future. On the track, she doesn't let her past race affect the next, the first hurdle affect the second.

Her parents aren't here, but they're still with her.

"I feel like all that I've been through has molded me and still molds me to be the person I am today," Nelvis said. "If all that hadn't happened to me, would I have been as strong as I am today?"

There might not be a race more fitting for Nelvis than the hurdles. It is her life in race form -- a course made only more complicated by the 10 physical obstacles between the start and the finish.

"You have to have a different mindset," former teammate Solomon Williams said. "In hurdling you can go through a race, hit every single hurdle, but still finish the race."

She started running in sixth grade but didn't compete in hurdles until two years later. High school coaching in the parts of Memphis, Tennessee, where Nelvis grew up was raw and nearly nonexistent, which Arkansas State assistant coach Jason Brooks saw when he began to recruit Nelvis.

But she had the athleticism and speed to become an elite hurdler. Unfortunately, without much guidance at home she didn't prioritize high school classes and lacked one she needed to enroll at a Division I school.

Instead, she enrolled at Southwest Mississippi Community College, where she could take that class and still have a full scholarship. But she didn't take a visit to the school, and when she arrived for her first day, almost immediately she knew it was a bad fit. But since she had enrolled, under NCAA rules she'd be considered a transfer anywhere she went.

She called Brooks to see if there was still a spot open for her at Arkansas State. She'd need to take out student loans and train by herself for the first year, but that was worth it. Track had always been her only constant.

Cordelrica knew Sharika loved the track because, unlike life, the track was always fair. It gave to Nelvis what she put in. When she showed up, it was 400 meters. When she left, it was still 400 meters. Winners weren't chosen randomly, they were decided by who crossed the line first. With her own fate in her control, she had found a place that felt like home should be.

The first year was tough. Nelvis had to train without any positive reinforcement from coaches, teammates or race results. No one kept score of her personal bests. No one was there at the local soccer fields keeping times when she ran in the mornings.

It was also a big adjustment off the track.

Brooks had also come to Jonesboro, Arkansas, from Memphis. In his 10 years at Arkansas State, he has seen three fights break out. That, he said, would happen in one afternoon on one street corner in Memphis.

"I would say every city has its bad spots, but Memphis has more bad spots than good spots," Brooks said.

Brooks told Nelvis about one day during his freshman year at Arkansas State when he was out on a run and a car pulled over to the side of the road. In Memphis, this would be cause for worry. In Jonesboro, an elderly gentleman stepped out of his car and asked Brooks if he needed some water.

Brooks also told her that if she could adjust and make good on her end of the deal, Jonesboro could become home and the team could become a family.

That stuck.

With that atmosphere, her drive, and a coach who came in before her sophomore year -- who promised to stay and be there for his athletes -- Nelvis finally had the stability she didn't have as a child.

She went from all-conference to All-American in three years. She took the strength from her parents and the coaching from Patchell and Brooks and has led a mid-major to a top seed at the NCAA championships. For the first time in her life, she has a target on her back for all the right reasons.

"She doesn't believe failure is an option," Brooks said.

As a senior in high school, Nelvis dedicated her state championship meet to the memory of her mother. On Thursday, when she takes the track for her prelims, she'll be running for herself and for Arkansas State.

She'll be running for the 8-year-old version of Sharika who wondered if life would get better and the 24-year-old version of herself who proved it would. She'll be running for the girl who hit hurdle after hurdle yet still thrived. She'll be running for the school that finally gave her an idea of home and the team that has become her family.

Her finishes and awards, her titles and all-everything status have secured her spot in Arkansas State athletic history. Win or lose this weekend -- that fact will stand.

But for those who know her best, the most impressive part of Nelvis will forever be her laughter and her strength.

And for that, she has her parents to thank.