Jackie Coward isn’t a typical teenager by any stretch of the imagination. She talks more about her faith than herself, she says that the journey is far more enjoyable than the destination and she took a highly mature stance in the face of a pressure-packed situation.

And it’s because of that maturity – combined with a wealth of athletic gifts – that Coward could ultimately become UCF’s first outdoor All-American and track national champion.

The first step in that process comes later this week when Coward, a UCF sophomore, competes in the 100-meter hurdles at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore. And Coward heads into the competition both oozing with confidence and tempered by realistic expectations of someone well beyond her years.

“I really think I’m capable of being a national champion, but it won’t be easy,” Coward said following a recent workout. “Getting to the nationals means more to me now that I’m learning and really I’d rather not just win it right away. I want to go through the process and maybe not run good for a couple of years and then get it. The process of being a national champion would mean more to me.

“To me, the journey would be the sweetest thing,” she continued. “I always focus on the outcome of thinking that I’m going to run this time or that time. But it’s the process and the past that gets you where you want to go. I’ll put in the hard work and winning a title would mean a lot to me, but I really think I’d appreciate the trials and what you have to go through to get there just as much.”

It’s no surprise that Coward has blossomed into a rising star at UCF. The Knoxville, Tenn., native is one of the most decorated recruits ever landed by UCF in school history. Coward was named to ESPN’s Rise Track and Field All-Decade team recently following her spectacular prep career at Knoxville West High School.

As a high school star, Coward won the national Nike 100-meter hurdles and swept the Arcadia Invitational in 2007. She also won the Great Southwest 100-meter hurdles in 2008, posting a wind-aided time of 13.00, the second-best all-conditions time ever. Indoors, Coward twice won Nike titles in the 60-meter hurdles while also setting a high school record of 8.16 as a senior.

Those credentials made her one of the most sought-after track recruits in the country, and she had her pick of schools with offers coming in from SEC, ACC and Big 12 schools. UCF head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert, who worked previously at the University of Tennessee, was able to convince Coward to come to UCF and help her build the program into a national power.

“It was a big coop and so huge for our program getting Jackie,” Smith Gilbert said. “She could have gone anywhere she wanted and I had to really talk to her. It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to come to a program that’s building when you are an athlete of her caliber. She believed in what was going on here, and I was so proud of that.”

Not that other schools didn’t test Coward’s commitment. Several SEC schools kept recruiting her throughout her senior season of high school even though she had already committed to becoming a Knight. But she stuck strong and was determined that she would be the key piece in helping UCF grow into a powerhouse program. And some devine intervention along the way helped her stay strong with her college choice.

“I just had a feeling about UCF and I was at peace with it,” Coward said. “Some schools asked why I picked a boat when I could ride on a yacht. They were SEC schools. You hear that so much, but it was about being mature and trusting in God. People asked me why I always say that, but I really feel like He did tell me to come here. People would tell me that UCF wasn’t in a big conference or a national championship school, but we just won our conference and it’s a great beginning for us.”

Coward was a driving force behind UCF’s first-ever Conference USA Outdoor Championship title last month, winning the league title in the 100-meter hurdles event and finishing second in the 400-meter hurdles.

And despite a slow start in her qualifying heat at the East Regional in Greensboro, N.C., Coward came through in the clutch to earn a spot in the nationals at historic Hayward Field on the University of Oregon’s campus.

Coward missed the nationals as a freshman, and admittedly that was a wake-up call for her that it didn’t matter that she was a star in high school now at the college level. The transition from the prep level to college was somewhat jarring to her system at first, but it hardened her for what she’s about to face at the nationals.

“In high school I was used to being on top. I’d just run and usually be on top. But in college, just about everybody there is as good as you or better,” Coward said. “I wasn’t used to getting it handed to me and getting beat and it was a humbling thing. In high school I was breaking all of these records and then in college I wasn’t doing anything. I had to tell myself that high school was high school and college was college. I had to make my name over. I had to close the chapter on high school.”

Again, Coward stressed that her pursuit of a national championship is more about the journey than the destination. She is a strong believer that everything happens for a reason, and if there are tough times along the way they will only make the good times even better.

“Me not making the nationals last year was a wakeup call and it was God showing me that He’s humbling me and that I have to sometimes go through hell and high water to get to where I want to be,” Coward said. “I’m still going through it, and it’s part of growing up. But me getting to the nationals this year is God showing me, ‘Keep trusting in me! I got you here.’ So it’s all good.”

Source: John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.