Sprawled out on the track with scrapes everywhere and bruises that followed, McDonogh senior track and field star Nyla Cherry had one immediate thought.
It was something her longtime Woodlawn youth coach, the late Tony Kiser, told her over and over.
“I don’t care how you finish, just make sure you finish the race. You never stop racing,” he always said.
So there was Cherry, a freshman having put together a fine performance at the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference outdoor championships, doing everything she could to finish what she started in the 300-meter hurdles, her last event of the meet. After winning the 100 hurdles and taking third place in both the long jump and high jump, Cherry took the spill and then was determined to follow orders.
“I hit the hurdle, [it was a] bad fall and I got scraped up, but I had to get up and finish. Luckily enough, I took sixth overall and still scored points for my team,” said Cherry, an 18-year-old Maryland commit. “So anytime I coach new hurdlers, I always tell them that story and that you’re not a true hurdler until you fall. I fell and I’m OK.”
For the Randallstown resident, much of her high school career has been about her ability to get back up and stand taller. After taking home three IAAM titles in her sophomore indoor season — the 55 hurdles, long jump and 800 relay — the COVID-19 pandemic took away the outdoor season and the following indoor season.
During the time away from the team, she continued to find ways to train on her own — including out-of-state travel anywhere she could find competition. Then last year, when the IAAM outdoor season returned, she suffered a torn hip labrum at McDonogh’s first meet that eventually required surgery. The injury took place at the end of March and, after not responding to rest, the surgery took place in June. She was cleared to fully participate in November.
During the extensive rehabilitation that had her back in time for the indoor season, Cherry’s dedication and passion for track and field was on full display.
“The injury set her back, but didn’t stop her. I believe it made her stronger,” said her father, Johnathan. “It allowed her to build her desire even more because when things are taken away from you — sometimes you may take things for granted — you get the opportunity to come back after a process. I always told her, ‘God does things and doesn’t make any mistakes and there’s a reason you’re going through this.’ We just kept feeding her positive thoughts.”
In addition to receiving the vital support from her family, including her mother, Tavonna, and older brother, Jalen, and her McDonogh coaches, teammates and trainers, the time spent working her way back also showed what she had inside her.
“It was just about finding my purpose, just finding a way to stay motivated and just keep going,” she said. “I learned how resilient I was and how strong I truly am.”
Healthy throughout this senior year, Cherry hasn’t been busy making up for lost time. Instead, she’s making sure to simply savor each moment as they come. There have been plenty of special ones.
The indoor season produced first-place finishes in the high jump and 800-meter relay and a second in the 55-meter hurdles as the Eagles took second at the IAAM championships. This spring, she smashed her personal best in the long jump, her favorite event, with her 18-foot, 10-inch effort tops in the state this season and second best in McDonogh history. The Eagles are ranked No. 1 in the metro area with the IAAM championships set to start Wednesday and conclude Saturday.
Head coach Phil Turner is appreciative of what Cherry, a co-captain, has brought to the program, and it goes far past the points she consistently posts. Her fierce competitiveness always comes with a big, motivating smile.
“She just brings fun and joy to track and field,” he said. “She encourages the fastest kids we have all the way down to the kids who are just beginning in the sport. She’s been around the sport for many years, so she knows it, she respects it. She knows she’s going to win sometimes and lose sometimes, but she always does her very best with a spirit you can’t teach. There’s just something inside her that’s really special.”
Cherry’s foundation for success in the sport began when she was a toddler.
Her dad says she was a bundle of energy, always wanting to be outside or running through the house. After he signed her up for track and field when she was 7 years old, there was never any question what her favorite activity was. She also played basketball and volleyball, danced and was a cheerleader. But track and field always came first.
“I kind of like how individual it is. You have your team, but how well you do is kind of dependent on you,” she said.
With a quality blend of experience and youth, the Eagles have followed Cherry’s lead with high expectations coming into this week’s championship.
“She’s a great asset to our team, a fierce leader, and she’s always very encouraging to everyone on the team,” said junior captain Adrianna Thomas. “She definitely brings the energy, especially on the hard days when we sometimes don’t feel like running, but she’s always there with a positive outlook. And she just always has a smile on her face.”
McDonogh’s storied girls track and field program has a lengthy list of student-athletes who have left their mark on the program and Turner is quick to point out Cherry is one of them.
“The freshmen will remember her and they know that’s how you do track and field — how Nyla does it,” he said.
Cherry took a different path with added hurdles, but she is finding her way — Maryland was always her dream college — and the work and fun isn’t finished just yet at McDonogh.
“I love my team. We’re pretty young this year and I just remember when I was a freshman and how [the seniors] picked me up, so I always try to help out,” she said. “It’s so funny because they say, ‘Oh, my goodness, you do this, you do that and I just wish they could have seen how I started. I started just like they are now, so I love working with them and love watching them get better. I hope by the end of the season, even if they don’t hit the marks they hoped to hit — they can see just how far they’ve come. Everybody on the entire team has gotten better — it’s amazing this year.”
She has a simple and potent plan as the Eagles take aim at the IAAM crown.
“Everybody just show up and have fun,” she said. “No matter the outcome, we’re going to be there together and stick together as a team.”