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Coppin State triple jumper has gone from ACL surgery to an NCAA contender

After she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, doctors told Coppin State triple jumper Christina Epps that it wasn't likely she would ever be able to compete at the same level again.

A little more than two years later, the fifth-year senior is jumping further than ever and aiming to repeat her All-American status from the indoor season as the NCAA's outdoor track and field championships approach.

"They say the worst, and you have to think the best," Epps said. "Now, I have been better than I ever was."

Saturday, Epps will compete at the NCAA's East Preliminary meet in Jacksonville, Fla. If she finishes in the top 12 in her event, she'll advance to the NCAA championships next month in Eugene, Ore. It's the final stage of a career that could have ended in a sandpit in South Carolina in March 2012.

Epps was competing at the Shamrock Invitational at Coastal Carolina when she felt a pop as she pushed off on the last bound of her triple jump. Laying in the sand where she landed, unable to get up, she screamed for her coach and then for her mother.

Beverely Epps, was back home in Morristown, N.J., and remembers getting the phone call from her daughter.

"When I got the call, all I heard was screaming," the mother said. "A lot of screaming and a lot of crying. Her heart was broken, torn apart more than her [knee]."

Epps and Coppin State coach Alecia Shields-Gadson hoped that the injury was just a hyperextension, or a sprain. But after they returned to the team's hotel, Epps' knee swelled, and they went to the hospital.

"Our hearts sank," Shields-Gadson said. "Three hours later we are walking out of there with a brace and know that once we get back to Baltimore we need to schedule surgery."

As a former conference champion, it was hard for Epps to sit on the sidelines and just watch her teammates. So, in the beginning of her rehabilitation, Epps sulked.

"My confidence, hopes and dreams of succeeding had diminished," Epps said.

But there was a turning point.

Spending a night back home, Epps was doing pushups in her living room as part of her rehab. Beverley Epps, knowing that her daughter needed some motivation, put down what she was doing and started chanting "You are going to make a comeback" after each rep.

For the first time, Epps really started believing it.

She did work on a stationary bicycle, then progressed to jogging. By January 2013, she was back training.

"That is when it started getting exciting," Epps said. "When I could start jumping on the knee again."

By March 2013, a year after her injury, Epps was jumping again. But she was forced to wear a brace to protect her knee. The expectations were low, but she still wanted to be out there.

"She wanted so much to help this team," Shields-Gadson said. "You could tell her confidence faltered."

Epps competed well throughout that season, but she found herself trailing in the triple jump at the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference outdoor championships.

"It was hard for Christina to watch that," Shields-Gadson said. "She said, 'I know I'm in a brace, but this is my event.' And she just hit this one jump, and it not only sealed the victory for her, but it shut down the competition.

"At that point I had a tear in my eye because I saw that confidence again, because that had been one of her strong points prior to the injury, she always had some swag."

Epps won the conference title in the triple jump with a season-best jump of 12.48 meters.

The comeback continued this winter during the indoor season, where she broke 13 meters for the first time at a Feb. 8 meet.

"I was so happy. I was just in another world when I finally got 13 meters," Epps said.

Epps finished the indoor season as an All-American, winning the triple jump at the MEAC and Eastern College Athletic Conference meets and placing seventh at the NCAA championships.

This spring, she placed fourth in the triple jump at the Penn Relays with a 12.98-meter jump in front of a crowd of 38,135. Earlier this month she won her third outdoor MEAC triple jump title. Then she reached a new personal best with a jump of 13.12 meters at the ECAC meet in Princeton, less than an hour away from her hometown.

"You look at this half of her career, since the injury, and she has had nothing but accolades," Shields-Gadson said.

All that's left is another shot at leaving her mark on the national stage.

"I never thought I'd get back to that point," Epps said. "I was determined to jump again but I didn't know how my performance would be when I jumped. I shocked myself. But I was extremely happy and elated that I got back to where I was before the injury and then got better."

pbarrett@baltsun.com

twitter.com/petebarrettjr

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