This story originally appeared in the February edition of Hurricane Magazine.
By David Villavicencio | HurricaneSports.com
Shakima Wimbley’s trophy case is packed.
13 individual ACC titles. One team ACC indoor championship. 14 First Team All-ACC honors. Seven ACC records. 2014 ACC Women’s Track Freshman of the Year. Two-time ACC Women’s Track Performer of the Year. Three ACC Women’s Track MVPs.
The achievements are abundant and those are just from her outstanding performances at the conference level.
Wimbley, who is arguably the most accomplished long sprinter in ACC history, has also earned nine All-America honors over her first three years in NCAA track and field. The senior was the bronze medalist in the women’s 400m at the 2016 NCAA Outdoor Championships and helped the Hurricanes reach the women’s 4x400m final for the second consecutive year.
While the 400 meters is Wimbley’s favorite event, the explosive sprinter has a chance to make ACC history in the 200 meters. Undefeated in the event at the ACC Indoor Championships, she hopes to become the first four-time 200-meter indoor champion in ACC history.
“I’m happy to be in that position, but it still doesn’t make me feel like I have anything in the bag,” Wimbley said. “The other competitors are just as good and you don’t know who’s going to sneak up, you don’t know who’s going to come up and have their awesome moment. I just have to stay focused. Yeah, I’m in first place, but my motivation is to keep going and keep getting better.”
Despite all of her success, Wimbley is still hungry and striving for bigger things like an individual national championship – an accomplishment that has eluded her so far in her NCAA career despite being one of the elite sprinters in the country.
“I feel like the time and the talent part has always been there,” Wimbley said. “But I will say the mental side of me has kept me back because sometimes in races I will physically feel great and be able to run awesome times, but in my mind I doubt.
“I used to worry about competition and before I could even run the race I would think about where I’m going to finish, so when the gun goes off I’m not clearly focused and ready to run well because mentally I’m not there. Now I just quiet myself and I clear my mind. I get in my blocks and I hit the spot where I need to finish the race strong and focus on my technique. That’s in the past. I felt like mentally I held my own self back. It was never a physical issue. I feel like the talent was always there and now I just believe in it and trust in it more.”
It’s hard to believe that an athlete as gifted and accomplished as Wimbley had self-doubt, but the senior believes her past experiences have helped her become stronger and have her poised for a monumental final season at Miami.
“I had so many chances to become the national champion or make world teams and it was because my mentality that I didn’t make it,” Wimbley said. “I was putting other people ahead of myself and not trusting in my training completely. And the pain of losing when you know you’re better than someone else and you can compete at a higher level, it gets old and you just tell yourself, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be in this boat anymore. What do I need to do?’ So I kind of put that down and I talked to coach [Amy] Deem and she changed this preseason and she made it fit. It was tougher, but it made me a lot stronger.”
Wimbley and Deem have a great relationship that has grown stronger since the two met years ago. Deem has been by Wimbley’s side as she has climbed to the top of the ACC and beyond, and it’s that time spent working together that has forged an unbreakable bond.
“Coach Deem is a special lady,” Wimbley said. “I know I have frustrated her a lot in the past, but she has never quit on me. She did not give up on me. She still believes in me. She still trusts in me and she took it step-by-step with me and that just created a level of loyalty and trust for that lady. Sometimes I think that I was placed in the best hands possible because she’s helped me grow, and not only on the track, even with my academics. She is just pushing me to be the best that I can be and I really appreciate her for that.”
Deem always saw the potential in Wimbley, even when she was at Dillard High School and just starting to figure out how to run in her long and lanky body. A legendary track coach that has been at Miami over a quarter century, Deem has coached national champions, All-Americans and Olympic gold medalists. She has enjoyed working with Wimbley and watching her blossom into the star she is today.
“She’s had tremendous growth in the program,” Deem said. “Even from physical and mental growth. She came in and she had very little core strength, she has very long levers, very long limbs and just the control from a physical standpoint, just the growth of her getting stronger and being able to control her movements. It’s been fun to watch from that side.”
But Deem knows the mental aspect has often been Wimbley’s biggest hurdle and the two have worked hard to help her overcome it. An avid track fan, Wimbley follows meets all over the world and knows what each of her peers have done almost instantaneously. Because of her deep knowledge of what others have done, Wimbley often found herself in awe of the other accomplished runners on the biggest stage.
“That’s been kind of a challenge as a coach,” Deem said. “Getting her to kind of step away from that and just focus more on her abilities. She clearly loves track and follows it, but at the same time I think she’s finally at a point where she sees herself in the same light as her peers. At one point, someone would have been more like an idol or someone that she looked up to and never quite saw herself at that level and I think in the last two years she’s gotten to a point she sees that, ‘wait a minute I can do this, too.’
“She’s always wanted to be there, but that true belief that she belongs there is the final piece of the puzzle and one of the things that we’ve worked on this year,” Deem said. “To train more consistently, to do things even when she doesn’t feel like it. She always trains hard, but just to work through those few days she doesn’t necessarily feel great and just really truly believing that she’s a person that could be on the world stage if she chooses to be.”
Wimbley is the ACC leader in the 200m, 300m, 400m and ran the anchor leg on Miami’s ACC-leading 4x400m relay. The Hurricanes’ standout has rarely been tested in 2017, but she stepped up when challenged in the 400m at the Rod McCravy Memorial Invitational at the end of January.
Kendall Ellis is a familiar foe to Wimbley and she was the biggest challenge the Hurricanes’ star has faced this season. Ellis, who is an All-American at USC, hails from Pembroke Pines, Fla., and has been racing against Wimbley since their youth. The two ran a tight 400m race at the McCravy Memorial Meet, with Wimbley edging out Ellis and posting a then world-leading time of 51.28 seconds.
“It gives you confidence,” Wimbley said of rising to Ellis’ challenge. “Mid-race I saw that I was behind her and I was pretty close, so I told myself, ‘do not give up until that line.’ That to me was more important than running that fast time. For the first time ever I was in a scary situation and I held my composure, I held on and I was like, ‘I can fight until the line, I can do this, I’m strong enough, I can do this, I still have energy.’ So for me to be able to get through that situation, that made me more proud of myself than actually running that fast. Even before the race, the way I handled my emotions I was able to talk positive things to myself instead of negative. I was like, ‘okay I ran 36 (seconds in the 300m) last week. I feel pretty good. It’s just another 100 meters.’ Everything I was thinking about was with positive reinforcement. I was able to step to the line and compete and it felt really good, so I think that’s an upside.”
Wimbley’s hard work and determination do not go unnoticed by her teammates. Sophomore Brittny Ellis trains daily with Wimbley and values the opportunity to work so closely with such an elite runner.
“It’s awesome to be able to train with her,” Ellis said. “She is someone that pushes me in practice. I know if I can keep up with her then I am in good shape. It’s been an awesome experience. She’s a great leader and can always pick us up if we are having a hard time. It means a lot knowing that I have a tight knit support group within the 400 meters. She has done so much at such high levels and that is inspiring to me and pushes me to want to get there, too.”
Ellis and fellow 400-meter runner Aiyanna Stiverne are two of Wimbley’s closest friends on the Hurricanes and the trio makes up three-fourths of Miami’s 4x400m relay. Wimbley believes their relationship on and off the track has helped them all excel over the past couple years.
“It’s been amazing having Aiyanna and Brittny here,” Wimbley said. “That probably was one of the best things to happen to me at Miami because I know that if I push myself, it will push them and they will push me to be better. I know Brittny looks up to me and I feel like me being positive has an effect on them, too.”
A quiet leader who prefers to lead by example, Wimbley knows her voice is heard when she speaks up.
“When I speak out at meets, my teammates hear it and they feel in their hearts,” Wimbley said. “Being on a relay with them, I know they will always give 100 percent and I always want to run for them. They always put me in a great position and they always push me, especially Aiyanna. She always has motivating things to say to me. We come from the same place in Ft. Lauderdale and have been competing with each other for so long. She’s just like, ‘You got it. You know you’re the best,’ and that helps pick me up. It’s just great to have somebody like her on my team.”
The trio of Wimbley, Ellis and Stiverne will look to repeat their success from 2016, where they all reached the 400m final at the ACC Indoor Championships. Currently, Wimbley leads the ACC in the 400m, while Ellis is second in the conference and Stiverne is tied for third.
“Aiyanna has pushed her at times at practice when she’s needed it and I think it’s a good reality check because if she’s not on her game, they’re right there,” Deem said. “The fact that they’re together working every day, they go out there and try to push each other. We want them to push her and vice versa because it makes everybody better.”
Deem believes the additions of Stiverne, who joined the Canes prior to the 2016 season after spending two years at UTEP, and Ellis have helped Wimbley elevate to her current level of success. She also feels Stiverne and Ellis have improved by training with Wimbley, giving Miami a dangerous triple threat in the 200m and 400m, as well as strengthening their elite 4x400m relay team.
“I think it’s a much better dynamic than even it was last year because Brittny is a year older, a little more comfortable and stronger in the workouts,” Deem said. “If Shakima is off a step or two, they’re right there pushing her and it’s a good thing. I think they help each other get through the tougher workouts and it’s good to have your individual time to train, but it’s also good to have your group on those harder days to really motivate you and push you through. They’ve all benefited from training and competing together.”
Wimbley’s demeanor is noticeably different in 2017. The self-confidence that she has been working on is starting to show on the track and that means bad news for her competitors. While she has begun to trust in her abilities completely, she has not let her talent and success get to her head. In fact, Deem believes Wimbley’s mindset is the right combination of confidence and hunger.
“I think she’s handled it extremely well and I hope that she continues to do that,” Deem said. “I think that will help her in more ways than one to achieve her goals this year and moving forward post-collegiately. I think one of the biggest things is that she puts so much stock in how good certain people are and not enough in herself. “It’s not a lack of respect. I think any given day she knows people are going to step up. Nobody is going to say, ‘You’re Shakima Wimbley. Here’s a national title. I don’t care if she’s the preseason favorite or number one returning athlete, someone always comes out of somewhere. For her, it’s about continuing to build confidence and each race get stronger and stronger mentally to continue throughout the season.”