At this time last year, Oregon sprinter Deajah Stevens didn’t think she had a statistical chance at making the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team.
“My plan was to make it to Tokyo in 2020,” she said. “Going into NCAA nationals, I didn’t think my time was fast enough to even make it to the trials.”
Stevens indeed made the U.S. team for Rio, ultimately reaching the 200-meter final, where she finished seventh. In doing so, Stevens became the latest in a long line of Oregon track and field athletes to compete in the Games.
The road from her native New York City to Eugene, Oregon, and finally to Rio wasn’t a straight, clear-cut path.
Stevens said she got into the sport by default, after first trying soccer.
“The only thing I was good at was running with the ball,” she said. “I was faster than everyone else, and that’s when I decided to give it up and start running track.”
While in middle school, Stevens said her club track coach made her run against high school boys in practice. She hated to lose, even if it was to faster, older boys, and the experience made her tougher and faster when she arrived at Mount Vernon High School.
After one year there, however, she transferred to New Rochelle and ran for the Huguenots for two seasons before transferring to Benjamin Cardozo High in Queens for her senior year.
The switch to track powerhouse Cardoza was more about getting recognition from collegiate scouts, she said. So each day, Stevens woke up at 5:30 a.m. and took two trains and a bus just to get to school. The transportation cost her mom about $400 a month, she said. That, plus switching schools so much, took a toll on her.
“I had to learn a new school, new coach, a new team and new academics each time,” she said. “It took a lot out of me mentally, not just physically.”
The efforts paid off, though. As a senior, she was ranked in the top 10 nationally in the 200, 300 and 400 indoors, was the 2012 high school indoor nationals runner-up in the 200, and ended her career as a three-time New York state champion.
That led to scholarship offers, and Stevens signed with South Carolina, where her coach at Cardoza knew the coaches. But once again, the path forward veered off course.
Before Stevens left for South Carolina, the NCAA declared her ineligible because she was one credit short.
“They said a class I took my freshman year was the same class I took my senior year,” Stevens said, noting that both statistics classes were part of each school’s graduation plan.
The news devastated her, and she felt everything had gone terribly wrong. Her dreams shattered, she decided to forego college and sat at home — for a year.
Then, she said the coaches at South Carolina encouraged her to attend the College of the Sequoias, a junior college in California. She quickly got back on track, winning the California junior college state championship in the 200 and 400, while finishing as runner-up in the long jump.
Just as quick as her legs was her classwork. She completed her associate degree in just a year and a half, and then started the spring of 2016 with Oregon.
“The reason I finished junior college so fast was because I wanted to run D-1 right away and not waste another year, and Oregon gave me the best of both worlds,” she said. “They have one of the best programs in the country, and God blessed me with a scholarship there.”
At Oregon, Stevens joined a program that has produced a who’s who of U.S. Olympic track stars, ranging from Steve Prefontaine to a modern group that includes 2016 Olympic medalists Matthew Centrowitz, Ashton Eaton, Phyllis Francis, English Gardner and Galen Rupp.
Stevens quickly found her niche in the powerhouse program. After three top-three finishes at the Pac-12 Championships, she finished second in the 200 and third in the 4x100 at the NCAA championships. She’s already a six-time NCAA all-American.
Still, going into the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at Hayward Field last July, she just wanted to compete. When she saw she’d finished second in the 200-meter final, she just kept staring at the board, figuring it would probably change. It didn’t.
She was going to Rio.
“I was in complete shock,” Stevens said. “I’m not one who typically shows a lot of emotion, but that day I did. It was like an out of body experience. It was a dream come true.”
Stevens said the next few weeks were a whirlwind, from processing to training with Olympians in Houston to getting all giddy on the plane to Rio.
“I was in the first seat of coach, and right in front of me was Serena Williams, who was in the last seat of first class,” Stevens said. “I just kept staring at her, and when she would look back I would look the other way real quick. Finally she turned to me and said, ‘Hey, what’s up?’”
Stevens took a photo on the plane with the tennis star.
Then she went on to finish seventh in Rio. The overall experience, she said, has given her more confidence than ever.
“I still have nerves before a race, but now they aren’t bad nerves,” she said. “They’re confident nerves. I just hope to keep this current momentum going towards Tokyo.”
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.