Hammond's Melanie White was stunned as a freshman four years ago when she was cut from the girls basketball program. But it turned out to be the pivotal moment of her athletic career.
Unknown to White, Hammond girls varsity basketball coach Joe Russo had been telling Golden Bears girls indoor track and field coach Pete Hughes that White was perfect for his team.
"As soon as I walked out of the room from being cut from basketball, Coach Hughes was right there asking me if I wanted to run track," White said. "He was right there at the door."
Last week, White played a major role in the Hammond girls winning their first county indoor track title since 1990-91. The Golden Bears tallied 104 points, 25 more than two-time defending county champion and runner-up Glenelg, with White contributing 14 points with a third-place finish in the 55-meter hurdles (9.84 seconds) and second-place in the high jump (4 feet 10).
At the start of the final 55-meter hurdles, White was the athlete's definition of calm, cool and collected.
"I'm just trying to tune everything out at the start of a competition," White said. "I hear a lot of my competitors say that I don't look nervous. They ask me, 'How can you be so relaxed?' when deep down inside I'm really as nervous as everybody else."
When asked to describe White and her importance to Hammond's success, Hughes said: "She's eloquent. Definitely a lady and a silent leader. It's fitting we would capture indoor track championships in her first and final years here."
White's teammate and senior classmate Kisha Jett, who has a full athletic scholarship to the University of Florida, echoed Hughes' praise of White, whom Jett affectionately nicknamed "Slo-Mo."
"Slo-Mo's our unsung hero because she is so quiet and doesn't say that much until she gets out on that track," Jett said. "Then she's all business and does what is expected of her. We weren't really supposed to get her [on the team] because she went out for basketball. I'm sure glad they cut her."
Jett gave White the "Slo-Mo" nickname because her style of running reminded Jett of dramatic slow-motion replays on television.
"No matter how fast Melanie goes, she looks just like the 'Bionic Woman' when she runs," Jett said.
What Hughes, Jett and the rest of the Hammond team appreciates in White is her ability to think team first. When Hammond junior Monica Stevens finished first (9.29) in the 55 hurdles to win the county individual title, White was the first runner to congratulate her.
"Melanie was the county [outdoor] champion in the hurdles as a sophomore before Kisha took up the event," Hughes said. "When Kisha became dominant in the hurdles, Melanie was able to accept that fact and do whatever it took to help the team."
Instead of sulking from having to run in the large shadow of Jett, White made the most of Jett's national emergence in the 55-meter hurdles by relying on her teammate for technical advice. She also began concentrating on her own strongest event, the high jump.
"I could tell right away when she was a freshman that she would be a good high jumper because of her strong vertical leap," Hughes said. "Now she just needs to add a little speed to her approach to get more height so that she can compete at the next level."
White attained early success in the high jump, setting a Hammond record of 5-2 as a sophomore.
"I thought I would get better as I got older, but unfortunately injuries [knee and shin splints] to me my junior year set me back," said White, who hopes to reattain her personal best jump before graduating.
Despite the meager practice time this indoor track season because of the school-closing weather and the academic crunch of midterm exams, White managed to high jump 5-0 at an earlier indoor meet to tie for second best in the county behind Howard's Melissa Williamson (5-2).
"We're going to work on her approach the next two weeks as we prepare for the state meet and hope to qualify for the national indoor track championships up at Syracuse," Hughes said.
Despite White's athletic success, she continues to place academics first. Carrying a 3.36 grade-point average, White has been accepted at the University of Maryland and is waiting to hear from the University of Virginia. Whether she attempts collegiate track will be decided later.
"For her, it's academics first and if track is an option, then pursue it," Hughes said. "Wherever she chooses to go to college, I'll contact the track coach and see if there's a possibility for her to walk on."
White said she would enjoy the challenge of college track competition for two reasons.
"I can't imagine not running track because I love it, and because it motivates me to budget my time," she said.