For the first time in two years, Mallard Creek senior Liyah Jones stepped out onto the mondo-surface track at JDL Fast Track in Winston-Salem. She took her place in lane one and stepped into the blocks, looking for redemption at the 2020 NCHSAA 4A Indoor State Meet.
What came next went perfectly according to Jones' plan. A clean race with no miscues going over the five hurdles resulted in an impressive fifth place finish in the 55-meter hurdles at the state championships.
Jones later added onto her scoring placement in the 55-meter hurdles, running a leg on Mallard Creek's winning 4x400-meter relay team.
Nearly two years after suffering a torn ACL in the 55-meter hurdles at the same meet, Jones could finally leave JDL and return home to Charlotte with a happy memory.
"It was actually emotional at the end, just thinking about my journey and thinking about the last time I was in that race and I what I went through," Jones said.
Mallard Creek indoor track and field coach Antoine Sanders couldn't help but feel grateful that Jones finally had her one shining moment at the state championships, something he knew she had been working toward for many grueling months.
"To finish fifth in states and then to have a group of girls that she ran the 4x400 with and finished as state championships, you couldn't even [write] a truer script that way," Sanders said.
It took a solid work ethic and a committed love for hurdling to propel Jones to success post-injury.
"She could have easily just given up track altogether," said Mallard Creek head outdoor track and field coach Londell McClary. "But no, I think this is a sport that she really loves."
For Jones, track and field has always been a focus. She started competing at age six. Her parents watched her and her two sisters constantly competing and running around outside as they grew up, and they decided to introduce Jones and her sisters to the sport.
It wasn't until middle school that Jones started learning to hurdle, and once she started to master the technique, she saw her love for track and field grow exponentially.
"Once I started doing great at it, I was like 'I can do this,'" Jones said. "It's definitely something I want to keep up with in my life."
Jones entered her freshman year of high school with solid hurdling experience under her belt, and it showed. She qualified for the indoor state meet in the 55-meter hurdles and finished fifth in both the 100-meter hurdles and 300-meter hurdles at the 4A West outdoor regional meet.
"She didn't shy away from her workouts and she was just a hard worker," McClary said.
Come indoor season as a sophomore, Jones qualified for states in the short hurdles yet again and hoped to score points for her team.
Yet Jones didn't even get a chance to add to Mallard Creek's team score.
Out in lane six in the prelims of the 55-meter hurdles, Jones got off to a solid start out of the blocks, looking like she would gain a promising spot in the finals. She cleared the first two hurdles with ease.
But then came hurdle number three.
Jones' trail leg clipped the hurdle, but the hurdle did not move. The misstep immediately threw off Jones' balance and placement, and she twisted her right leg as it came down on the track over the hurdle.
Jones felt her knee buckle, and she instantly collapsed to the ground as a gasp rang through the crowd.
"I felt like my knee was broken," Jones said.
Her coaches watched in shock.
"Her back foot, which is her trail leg, it hooked," McClary said. "I can see it very visibly. I still have [video of the race] on my iPad right now and I've played it back a number of times."
In a matter of seconds, Jones watched the benefits of her dedication disappear with the buckle of a knee.
"It was heartbreaking, honestly," Jones said. "All of the hard work that I had put in to get there, and this was my first time being at state championships. Being in that position and getting hurt, it honestly was heartbreaking."
Coaches and trainers rushed her to the training room where she quickly received ice for her knee. No one really knew the severity and extent of Jones' injury.
The next day, an appointment with a doctor confirmed the worst: Jones had torn her anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL. Doctors explained to Jones that she would have to have surgery and undergo a long healing process before she could return to the sport she loved.
Faced with the reality, Jones felt confused and more scared than she had ever felt before.
"It's like the world stopped," Jones said. "I never would have thought I would have to have surgery on my knee from track."
Yet despite the uncertainty and misfortune surrounding the situation, Jones didn't let her injury deter her from her track and field goals. What came next was a long recovery process that Jones attacked just like any other track workout.
Jones underwent an operation to repair the damaged ACL in March 2018 once the swelling in her knee subsided. Following the surgery, Jones immediately began the physical and mental rehabilitation process, focusing on regaining her confidence and trust in her knee.
Three to four times a week, Jones would get picked up from school and travel straight to physical therapy, followed by icing and more rehabilitation on her own when she returned home-a routine she followed for nearly a year and a half like clockwork.
She set small milestone goals to keep her steady along her recovery path, such as straightening her knee to 90 degrees. Jones also filmed herself performing all her rehab exercises so she could watch and study her physical improvements.
Each goal met and gain made gave Jones something to celebrate, even if they may not have seemed like big moments to others. That, along with weekly texts from Mallard Creek coaches and teammates and care from her family, helped Jones stay motivated.
"I knew I had to be determined, stay focused, and if anyone could make it happen, I could," Jones said.
Jones slowly gained strength in her knee and returned to track work during the winter of her junior year. She spent most of her time training her knee to successfully absorb contact with the ground-a crucial step to regaining her hurdling technique. Though not competition-ready for indoor track, she developed herself back into racing shape as she eyed a return to the track for the outdoor season.
Flash forward to the 17th Annual Blue Ridge Classic at A.C. Reynolds High School in Asheville on April 27, 2019, and Jones made her long-awaited debut in the hurdles. Admittedly nervous, Jones wasn't sure what to expect of herself, but she went on to qualify for regionals in the 300-meter hurdles on her first attempt.
"One thing that was important for me was being prepared," Jones said. "I was definitely nervous about having the first race back, but I feel like the preparation I had going into that race definitely gave me a lot of confidence."
Sanders instantly knew that Jones was back-both physically and mentally.
"When I saw her clear the first hurdle, I was like 'OK, this is going to be a good race then,'" Sanders said.
Jones' momentum from her return to hurdling carried over through the summer and into the winter season of her senior year, culminating with her successful return to the indoor state meet following her devastation at the meet two years earlier.
"From being injured two years before and to see her place in the same race that she got injured, that did my heart a great joy, and I know it was for her," Sanders said.
Jones hoped to translate her indoor season success to outdoors this year, but due to the recent coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the entire country, it seems unlikely that Jones, will have her chance to shine for one final season.
"[In the 300-meter hurdles], she would have been one of the top individuals, if you look on MileSplit, coming back as a senior," McClary said. "She was probably one of the top 10 in the state."
Yet faced with the reality that her final high school track meet may have been that noteworthy indoor state championship meet, Jones remains satisfied with the progress she has made during her four years in high school. She also hopes to take her talents to the collegiate level, and she intends to announce her commitment to a school in May.
"Just seeing the personal progression, having patience, realizing how much I've dealt with, not rushing coming back," Jones said. "I've just appreciated all the small things that went into my comeback."
After watching Jones start off her high school career strong, face an obstacle, and come out on top, McClary said he knows that Jones and her dedication will take far and help her hurdle any other adversity she faces in the future.
"What she went through to get back, it speaks volumes as far as her and her love for the sport," McClary said. "Most people would have been not wanting to come back and do hurdling because that's where [the injury] happened. They'd just want to try something else. No, she came back, and she embraced it."