RICHMOND — Imagine what Kiara Porter might accomplish once she really understands what she's doing.
VCU's diminutive sprinter has surprised people for years with her raw speed and tenacity. Now that she has begun to grasp race tactics and to trust her training, she's in position for greater feats.
"I want to be successful and be great," said Porter, a junior from Tabb High. "You have to let your body do what your body does and not overthink it."
Porter's next step comes next week at the NCAA outdoor championships at Eugene, Ore., where she will attempt to become an All-American in her specialty, the 400 meters.
"I don't get surprised by her any more," Rams coach Jon Riley said. "My expectations are for her to rise to the occasion every time she steps on the track. You know it's going to be good, but you don't know how good it's going to be."
Porter set personal bests in consecutive races last weekend at the NCAA East regional meet in Jacksonville, Fla. She clocked 52.11 seconds in the qualifying round, a school record. She dusted that mark with a 51.72, the fourth-fastest time from both regional meets, and easily qualified for Eugene.
"It didn't really surprise me," Porter said. "The track felt really fast and I knew what I had to do."
Porter, 5-feet even and 115 pounds, will attempt to stand out among a stacked field. The women's 400 features two-time NCAA outdoor champ Ashley Spencer of Texas, Longhorn teammates Courtney Okolo and Kendall Baisden, who have the two fastest times in the nation this spring (both under 50.5), and NCAA indoor champ and collegiate record holder Phyllis Francis of Oregon, who clocked 50.46 at the indoor meet. Also, Florida's Robin Reynolds edged Porter in both races at the NCAA regional meet.
Despite Porter's obvious improvement in her times, Riley saw progress in other areas in Jacksonville. Reynolds closed on Porter unlike she'd experienced in the past, yet Porter maintained her composure and still ran exceptional times and races.
"I just focused on my race and what I was supposed to do," Porter said. "Sometimes I overthink things and that's when I don't do my best. If I start thinking about times or the competition and who's around me, I don't run my race."
It's all part of Porter's learning curve. For the better part of two years, Riley simply let Porter run and went easy on burdening her with strategy until he determined what she could handle. Once she established that she could manage the rigors of school — she's a Dean's List student majoring in finance — and take care of herself on and off the track, he ratcheted up her training and introduced race strategies.
"Last year, I finally learned how to run the 400," Porter said. "I'm starting to put all the components together."
Porter's general strategy now is to go out hard for the first 50 meters, run a "relaxed" next 150 meters, and then go hard again in the final 200 meters.
"A comparison for average people would be if you're driving a car with a stickshift," Riley said, "I want her to get to fifth gear as quickly as she can in the first 50 meters, dial back to fourth gear for the next 150 meters, then kick it back into fifth gear for the last 200 meters until she runs out of gas."
As Porter gets stronger, and she's freakishly strong for her size, Riley envisions her extending fifth gear beyond those first 50 meters, downshifting for a shorter period and still having enough in the tank to go full bore for the final 200 meters.
"She's bought into the things that we've been teaching," Riley said, "and she's taken it to another level."
Riley said that he used to think that Porter's ceiling was a sub-52-second 400 meters. In recent weeks, he recalibrated and believes she's capable of clocking below 51 seconds — sooner, rather than later. Her workouts lately have been exceptional. He thinks that she can run 11 seconds flat for 100 meters, the mid-22-second range for 200 and 50-point something in the 400.
Porter's height, or lack thereof, used to be a big motivator. Both recall plenty of times her first two years when opposing coaches and runners sized her up and down as if she were a novelty act.
But as she's run fast and begun to develop a national reputation, the track world takes notice. She was part of the U.S. gold medal 4x400 relay pool at the World Junior National championships in 2012 in Barcelona. She's won multiple conference titles and competed at the NCAA meet last spring.
Riley said that he hears opposing coaches tell their sprinters when running against Porter to attempt to match her early speed and not get burned off. That's a far cry from the times when he was the only coach seriously recruiting her.
"I know coaches who didn't even consider her because of her height," he said. "I think some of them are pulling their hair out now. They didn't give her a chance because she's so little. I hope she's made me look like a genius."
Porter said that her goal is to make All-American — top eight. Riley said that she's publicly modest and capable of more. She doesn't sandbag or lack for confidence, he said, but her motivational toolbox includes downplaying her ability and then using that as fuel.
"She'll look at a workout sheet," Riley said, "and say, 'You want me to run that? I can't do that.' And then she goes out and does it. I've heard her say, 'I can't run with that girl,' and maybe she can't at that time, but she knows she's going to see her again and she does everything she possibly can to put herself in position to beat her. That's something I've learned about how she motivates herself."
Riley said his task in the coming days is to get her to the NCAA meet with as clear a mind as possible and to give her every opportunity simply to run. Last year's meet, also at Eugene, provided a roadmap for this trip.
"The biggest thing is to run my race and if it's mean to be, it's meant to be," Porter said. "If I run the same kind of race I that ran at the regionals, then I should get there."
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.