Nimrit Ahuja was only running track to stay in shape for tennis, nothing more.
That’s at least what she said in November of her freshman year when she came out for Howard’s indoor track team.
But after only a few months on the team, her mindset changed. In mid-January 2019, Ahuja was called up to varsity to run for the Lions’ 4x800-meter relay team at the county championships, and she was hooked.
“When I first joined track I didn’t really like it. I wanted to quit. It’s difficult to go from nothing to running three-to-four miles a day,” Ahuja said. “But at counties, I was put on the varsity lineup, and we ran the 4x800 that won the county championship and broke the meet record and the school record. I think that really flipped a switch for me. I started running in November, and then by January I quit tennis, the sport I had played for eight years.”
Two and a half years later, Ahuja was a leader and top performer for a Howard outdoor track and field program that won county, regional and state championships this spring. For her efforts, Ahuja has been named the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Girls Outdoor Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
“It’s hard to imagine that I would’ve gotten here from my past of being a tennis player,” Ahuja said. “It really shows that you never know what’s going to happen and to just take life as it comes. I’m really thankful for this, especially since we have a lot of talent here in Howard County.”
At both the county and state championships, the junior displayed her determination in gutsy performances in the mid-distance events. She won three gold medals at counties and medaled in three events at states.
“Being able to be such a team player and accomplish her individual goals is what stands out to me,” said Howard coach Zack Dickerson. “At counties, she was 100% a team player, and then at states it was more about her individual goals. To accomplish her goals and being a dependable team player makes a special athlete. She was impressive to watch this year.”
When Ahuja came into Howard as a freshman in 2018, her older sister Simar was a senior tennis player.
“It was this whole plan for us to be on the team together and maybe play doubles together,” Ahuja said.
But the track team’s chemistry was infectious, and Ahuja, like many other talented athletes at Howard, dedicated herself to track because of it.
“The team environment that Coach Dickerson and Coach Mack and Coach Wade create is really great,” Ahuja said. “Going to practice is the best part of my day, and I didn’t want to give up going to see my friends every day.”
When she was called up to varsity for the county championships that season, Ahuja was nervous to run alongside Amanda Eliker, a soon-to-be two-time cross country Runner of the Year, Emily Gorny and Sara Kindbom — three of the team’s top mid-distance runners.
“You’re always scared coming in as a younger person with people who are better than you. I was intimidated,” Ahuja said. “But they were just really open and they really accepted me. I’m really thankful to have had them as role models for me at that time.”
The leadership Eliker and the other team leaders showed that year is similar to the leadership Ahuja is displaying now, Dickerson said.
“High school kids will always respect the top athlete. She commands that with being talented. But in addition to that she’s really committed to being a leader,” Dickerson said. “She coordinates a group of girls to go up to the weight room this summer, and she’s planning watch parties for the Olympics coming up. Those things are outside our daily practice, but that’s what makes the team strong.”
Ahuja won another county title in the 4x800 during the 2019 outdoor season and qualified for states in three total events. She ran cross country for the first time that fall as a sophomore and placed second at counties behind Eliker. Then during the 2019-20 indoor season she was a part of a team that won the 4x800 county crown for a third time, medaled in the 800 and mile and qualified for states in both individual events.
For Ahuja, though, it was the shortened cross country season this spring — which started about a year after sports were shut down in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic — that was her turning point.
Going into the season, she said she put too much pressure on herself to step up and fill the shoes of Eliker, who was the only harrier to finish ahead of Ahuja during the 2019 county championships and is now running at the University of Maryland. She struggled with that pressure — along with recovering from a minor knee injury as well — and it led to a sixth-place finish at the county championship meet.
While the Lions still handily won the county title, it was a disappointing individual result she said.
“When I became an upperclassman this year, I think I sort of felt the need to replace [Amanda’s] role and put a lot of pressure on myself during the cross country season. Having that bad race just got to me,” she said. “The next day, Coach Dickerson sat down with me for about an hour to get rid of some of that pressure. I can’t thank him enough for that day. That completely helped me for the track season. He helped me learn how to run in the moment, let go of the expectations and know what you’re running for.”
During the track season that quickly followed cross country, Ahuja’s mentality shift was crucial, and she did nothing but come up clutch for the Lions.
At counties, she won individual gold medals in the 1,600 and 3,200 and also secured a first-place finish as a member of the Lions’ 4x400 relay. What makes her performance remarkable, though, were the conditions in which she won her two individual gold medals.
Due to inclement weather, most of the running events during the championship meet were held on one day instead of across two days. Usually, the mile and the two mile are held on separate days to give the runners a rest between the grueling events. This year, the two events were held just an hour apart.
Despite the circumstances, Ahuja kept up her pace on the last lap of both races to finish first in both.
“She’s so mentally tough. A lot of girls and guys have self doubt in high school, and that’s not there for her, at least not as much,” Dickerson said. “That was tough to have those two races so close together, but she rises to the moment.”
Three weeks later at the 4A state championships, Ahuja broke 5:00 in the mile with her time of 4:58 to secure a silver medal. She also took home a bronze medal in the 800 with a time of 2:16 and another bronze in the 4x400 alongside teammates Dakota West, Hayley Long and Michaela Greene.
“At states, I just really wanted to go for that sub-5:00,” she said. “When I saw we were on pace, I knew it was there. Seeing the time as I crossed, even though I got second, I was super happy.”
The Lions’ team championship at states came by a narrow margin, as they beat Urbana by 12 points, and no Howard athlete won an individual gold medal. It was truly a team performance, and the feeling afterward is something Ahuja and the Lions will be chasing next season.
“When everyone came together at the end when they announced our team win — and we are all jumping and shouting together — is a moment that I’m addicted to,” Ahuja said. “I run for that moment.”
Also named to first-team All-County:
Janasia Buckner, River Hill, junior
Events: 100, 200, 4x100, 4x200
Highlights: Buckner was arguably the top Howard County performer at the state championships. The Hawks’ sprinter won the highly competitive 100-meter dash with a time of 12.24 seconds. She also finished third at states in the 200 with a PR time of 25.22 seconds and won another gold medal in the 4x200 (alongside Larasia Buckner, Khadijah Mumuney and Araoluwa Omitowoju). At counties, the junior finished third in the 100 and won gold in the 4x100. Janasia Buckner was also a first-team selection during the 2019-20 indoor season as a sophomore.
Morgan Lane, Hammond, sophomore
Events: 100 hurdles, 300 hurdles
Highlights: In Lane’s first season hurdling, she drastically improved as the season progressed. She cut her time in the 100 hurdles by about 1.5 seconds and in the 300 hurdles by about 2.8 seconds. After finishing eighth in the 100 hurdles at counties and not competing in the 300 hurdles, she won both events at regionals to qualify for states. She then secured a silver medal in the 300 hurdles and a bronze in the 100 hurdles at states.
Sameena Mathew, Mt. Hebron, freshman
Events: 400, 200, 4x400
Highlights: From the moment Mathew stepped on the track this spring, the county knew she was already a star. In the 400-meter dash — her marquee event — Mathew outran the competition all season, winning the race in every single meet. At the county championships, Mathew won gold medals in both the 400 and 200 and a silver as a member of the Vikings’ 4x400 relay. At the 3A meet, Mathew won a state championship in the 400 with a personal-best time of 55.59 seconds. She also earned silver medals at states in the 200 and in the 4x400 (alongside Garcelle Pierre, Ava Pierre and Alexandra Carrico).
Kiara Murray, Howard, junior
Events: 100, 4x100, 4x200, long jump
Highlights: Murray was a key part of the Lions’ county and state championships. The junior qualified for states in four events — a difficult feat this season due to the MPSSAA’s changes due to COVID that shrank the number of athletes to qualify for states. Murray finished second in the long jump, fifth in the 100, sixth in the 4x100 and first in the 4x200. The gold medal in the 4x200 relay (alongside Michaela Greene, Olivia Hammond and Dakota West) was the only gold the Lions won in their unusual, impressive 4A state championship. At counties, Murray won gold medals in the long jump and the 4x200 to go with a bronze in the 4x100.
Tahlea Murray, Howard, senior
Events: 100 hurdles, 4x100, long jump, triple jump
Highlights: Tahlea Murray was one of the few athletes in the county to qualify for states in four events. Also separating her from her counterparts, Murray competed in an individual running event, a relay and two field events. At counties, she finished first in the triple jump, second in the long jump, third in the 4x100 (alongside Faith Kandie, Hammond and Kiara Murray) and fourth in the 100-meter hurdles. At states, Tahlea Murray finished third in the long jump, fourth in the triple jump and sixth in both the 100 hurdles and 4x100.
Araoluwa Omitowoju, River Hill, junior
Events: 100, 200, 4x100, 4x200
Highlights: Omitowoju won the highly competitive 100-meter dash at the county championships. She also qualified for states in the 100 and finished fourth. The junior was also a leg of the Hawks’ county title-winning 4x100 relay (alongside Larasia Buckner, Janasia Buckner and Teniola Adejana) and the team’s state title-winning 4x200 relay. Omitowoju was also a second-team selection during the 2019-20 indoor season as a sophomore.
Kat Parris, Reservoir, senior
Events: 100 hurdles, 300 hurdles
Highlights: Parris was the top hurdler at the county championships, winning gold in both hurdling events. She won gold in the 100 hurdles in 16.33 seconds and gold in the 300 hurdles at 48.11 seconds. She qualified for states in the 300 hurdles and finished fifth. Parris was also a star soccer player at Reservoir and was named the Howard County girls soccer Player of the Year in both her junior and senior seasons.
Liv Ragonese, Centennial, junior
Events: Shot put, discus
Highlights: As the top thrower in the county, Ragonese earned two medals at counties and one at states. The junior won a county championship in the discus and later finished fourth in the event at states with a throw of 100-5. In the shot put, Ragonese finished second at counties and at states. Her PR throw in the shot was 35-8 at regionals. Ragonese was a second-team All-County selection during the 2019-20 indoor season as a sophomore.
Rosalie Rosenberg, Oakland Mills, sophomore
Event: Pole vault
Highlights: As the top pole vaulter in the county, Rosenberg got better as the season progressed. The sophomore won a county championship with an 8-6 vault, finished second at regionals in 9-0 and fifth at states with a personal-best 9-6.
Ruth Smith, Howard, sophomore
Event: High jump
Highlights: Smith was the top high jumper in the county this spring. She finished first at the county championships by clearing the 5-0 bar. She qualified for states in the event and placed fourth for the state title-winning Lions.
Kaila Spence, Glenelg, junior
Events: 800, 1,600, 4x800
Highlights: Spence earned a gold medal and two silver medals at counties but was injured for the remainder of the postseason. She broke the tape in the 800 in 2:20 to finish first and in 5:12 in the mile for silver. Both times were personal records. Her other second-place finish at counties was as the fourth leg of the Gladiators’ 4x800 team (alongside Kailey Kasbeer-Betty, Sierra Rohmann and Kara Rivenbark). Spence was also a first-team selection in the 2019-20 indoor season as a sophomore.
Jamie Adams, Reservoir, junior, sprints
Larasia Buckner, River Hill, sophomore, sprints/jumps
Sophie Davidson, Reservoir, junior, sprints
Michaela Greene, Howard, junior, sprints
Ella Harris, Oakland Mills, senior, distance
Claudia Martinez, Centennial, sophomore, throws
Faith Meininger, River Hill, senior, mid-distance
Annaliese Mmari, Howard, junior, jumps
Farah Nasir, Atholton, freshman, sprints
Garcelle Pierre, Mt. Hebron, senior, sprints
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Hannah Schwab, Howard, junior, distance