Tajanel McNeill: WSSU Track All-American

Tajanel McNeill:  WSSU Track All-American
April 09
00:00 2015
(Above: Photo by Craig T. Greenlee- Tajanel McNeill is one of the premier triple jumpers in the NCAA Division II.)

When Tajanel McNeill arrived at Winston-Salem State four years ago, she was unknown, unheralded and had no grand expectations for her future as a college athlete. Those circumstances never caused McNeill to waver in her desire to make the most of an opportunity to earn a roster spot on the women’s track and field team.

Since her freshman year, McNeill has matured and blossomed as an all-purpose athlete. Aside from competing in all three of the horizontal jumping events (long jump, high jump, triple jump), she expanded her horizons to include the 100-meter hurdles, javelin throw and 4×100 relay.

Over the past three years, McNeill, a senior from Newark, N.J., has owned the field events in the CIAA. During that span, she’s the six-time Field Events MVP of the conference track and field championships (indoor and outdoor). At the national level, she ranks among the elites. McNeill is a three-time All-America, twice in the triple jump and once as a member of the Lady Rams 4×100 relay.

“Tajanel has become the athlete she is today because of her discipline,” said Coach Inez Turner of Winston-Salem State. “She made the choice to be the best that she can be. Not only does she do the necessary extra work, but she has the mindset that you need to compete and succeed at a high level.”

By the time her college career comes to a close, McNeill, an Exercise Physiology major, could end up being the most decorated women’s track athlete at Winston-Salem State. For now, though, she’ll concentrate on winning national titles in the triple jump and 4×100 relay at the NCAA outdoor championships in May.  McNeill recently took time out of her schedule to discuss her college career with Sports Week.

SW: You weren’t heavily recruited coming out of high school, so you came to track try-outs as a walk-on and your career has turned out extremely well. Summarize your time at WSSU.

McNeill: My time as a walk-on was definitely motivating. It helped to mold me into the athlete I am today. When I first came out, I didn’t know my place on the team and they put me any and everywhere. But my mentality was to stay focused and do what I came out do which was to put in the work and effort in a sport that I love.

SW: Once you made the team, what prompted you to see how much you could achieve?

McNeill:  I was inspired to get better because of all the teammates who were NCAA qualifiers and/or nationally ranked in their events. I had to do everything I could to keep up with them (in workouts). To do that, I knew I would have to dedicate myself to working hard. If I didn’t make it, I could still be satisfied because I would know that I poured all of myself into it. But I thank God because He blessed me and made it possible for me to excel as a track athlete.

SW: You’ve decided to turn pro when your track days are done at WSSU. What sparked your desire to compete at that level?

McNeill: I had never thought about being a professional athlete. That’s something that really became clear to me not so long ago.  I think that everybody in track and field should have the dream of eventually competing as a professional one day. Since I wanted to follow in the footsteps of some of my nationally-ranked teammates, I set some short-term goals. I wanted to be a national qualifier and it happened. Then, I wanted to make All-America and that came to pass, too.

Now, my No. 1 goal is to be the NCAA Division II (outdoor) national champion in the triple jump. That’s what I’m working towards right now. I’ve put in a lot of work and was able to accomplish my previous goals fairly quickly. So, I feel like the next step for me is to take it to the professional level. Achieving those short-term goals helped me realize that it’s possible for me to make good on my long-term goal to compete as a professional athlete.

SW: You’ve done a little bit of everything in WSSU track. It seems like the heptathlon would be a good fit for you once your college days are done. What are your thoughts about that?

McNeill: The heptathlon has been brought up a few times by my coaches. I’m not opposing it. But I know my passion is in the jumps. I’ve put in a huge amount of effort and work into everything they have me doing. I feel like I’m dedicated enough to each and every event. If I can put that same amount of energy into just one specific event, or maybe two jumps, who knows how far I can go from there?

SW: Tell me about track and field at your high school (Greensboro’s Grimsley). Did it help prepare you for college competition?

McNeill: It made me appreciate the sport more. It helped me to grow my love for track and I learned all about the value of hard work. When I was at Grimsley we didn’t have a great track and we didn’t have a lot of people. It wasn’t the ideal place to have a track team. In practices, it felt like we were running on concrete. In making the transition from high school to college, that’s what I carried with me. You have to work hard. It’s not about you, it’s about the team. Those are the values I carry with me today.

SW: You’ve earned multiple All-America honors over the past three years. What do you most want to accomplish by the time your college track career is over?

McNeill: One thing that’s really been on my heart in recent weeks is to pour into my teammates. I want to tell them what I know and what I’ve learned. If you love the sport, then it’s mandatory that you put some effort into it. At the college level, it requires a lot more out of you, so it’s not as easy. It’s not about the athlete’s feelings. It’s about the team, it’s about the sport. It’s about what can you do to help the sport to grow.

SW: Has your career turned out the way you thought it would?

McNeill: When I first got here, I didn’t have any great expectations for myself. It was like I was dreaming. I never thought I would be able to accomplish in the manner that I have. There were so many great people who were already at WSSU before I came. Compared to them, I wasn’t so sure about how well I could jump or how well I could run. The only thing I knew for sure was that I could work hard. Even if I wasn’t all that good, I was going to make sure that I would continue to show progress over the weeks to come. Track and field was something I really wanted to do. That’s my passion for the sport.

SW: What’s been your biggest challenge as a college athlete?

McNeill: For me, any type of transition is a challenge. In my sport, I went from the jumping events to hurdles and being part of the 4×100 relay. Making transitions gives me an uncomfortable feeling. I try my best to do what I can. But I have my coaches helping me. They’ve held my hand and walked me through and I’ve gotten great support from my teammates. With that kind of support and encouragement, it’s been so much easier for me to deal with transition. I really appreciate that.

SW: When you compete in the long jump and triple jump, you always start to clap and then others join in with you. How did that start? How does it help?

McNeill: There are a lot of jumpers who do that already. My jumps coach (Austin Davis) got that started with me. In practice I was always analytical and always striving to be perfect in every detail. He felt I could do better if I learned to relax during competition. So, he suggested that I start a slow clap right before I take off down the runway.

I was so scared and afraid to try it. I’d seen it done before, but didn’t think it would be any good for me. When we tried it that first time in practice, I was so worked up and nervous, but excited at the same time.

I’ll never forget how it all came together. I jumped farther than I ever had before (a personal best). I forgot all about technique and everything else. That’s when I found out that the hand clap helps me to relax and do what I already know how to do.

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Craig Greenlee

Craig Greenlee

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