Clarke clears final hurdle

USC fifth-year senior caps injury-plagued career with a trip to the NCAA meet

Special to The StateMarch 10, 2010 

KeKe Clarke is a prime example that perseverance pays off.

The fifth-year South Carolina senior qualified for her first NCAA Indoor Championships two weeks ago by becoming the first Gamecocks athlete to win the pentathlon at the SEC Indoor Championships.

Getting there wasn't easy. Clarke has battled hamstring and knee injuries, and there were plenty of times she thought about quitting. But with the encouragement of coaches and teammates, she was able to compete pain-free her final semester.

She made the most of her opportunity.

"I've thought about quitting so many times," Clarke said. "You know what you can do, but you can't because you are restricted with injuries. But I wanted everybody to remember me as a hard worker - even with what I've been through. I can still win and compete, and it finally showed."

Assistant coach Delethea Quarles was among those who wouldn't allow Clarke to quit.

"Giving up and quitting does not fit into the vocabulary at all," Quarles said. "That is part of the territory of coaching. You never give up on young people. Sometimes athletes need that kind of encouragement to see beyond what they can see."

The winning effort by Clarke at the SEC meet included keeping Alabama's Chealsea Taylor within sight during the final event, the 800 meters. Clarke needed to finish within four seconds of Taylor to earn the crown and the trip to the NCAA's.

She finished fifth, on the heels of Taylor. Outside of that dramatic finish, it was Clarke's all-around effort that put her in position to win the event. She had personal-best efforts in the shot put (39 feet, 5 inches) and long jump (18-10).

"I went in and didn't think about winning," Clarke said. "I know where I'm at and know what I need to do, and it worked out perfectly."

Clarke will lead a contingent of 11 athletes from USC at the NCAA Indoor Championships Friday and Saturday in Fayetteville, Ark. The women's team is ranked 23rd, and the men's team is ranked 20th.

Clarke came to Columbia after a decorated career at Palm Beach Lakes High in Florida. She competed in the hurdles, high jump, long jump and triple jump before following three former teammates to run track for Curtis Frye at USC.

She expected to compete in those events at USC, but Quarles had other ideas. She wanted Clarke to try the pentathlon her freshman season.

The events that comprise the event - the 60-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, long jump and 800 - presented Clarke with a new challenge. Some still do more than others.

"The throwing and 800 are definitely my weak points," Clarke said. "I had never thrown before and never ran the 800 before, but they decided it was a good spot for me. I questioned things at first, but it's something I love doing now."

Quarles believed Clarke was a good fit for the pentathlon because of her all-around ability.

"The pentathlon takes a special athlete," Quarles said. "They have to be a hard worker, and she fit that bill.

"You also have to have the ability to master some of those events inside of that. She is a great hurdler and good jumper and can sprint. Those are the ingredients you look for in a multi-eventer."

Clarke, who is majoring in biology, has hopes of competing professionally after she graduates.

"I would love to continue to do track," she said, "but because of my history of injuries, if my body doesn't allow me to do it, I plan on going to grad school without looking back."

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