Early in her running career, Franklin’s Nyjari McNeil preferred turning cartwheels on the infield to racing around the track.
“I’m not a runner. I’m a gymnast,” she would say when she was 6 or 7 years old.
For a while, that was mostly true.
She started gymnastics at age 3 and competed until she was 13, but at 6, she began going to her older sister Najatee’s practices with the Pikesville Cheetahs track club. Her mother, Tonya McNeil, a hurdler at Poly and Coppin State, coached Najatee, but Nyjari was not interested in training.
“I was always at the track with them,” Nyjari said, “and I would run around with my friends on the team, and the coach decided [that] if I was going to run around with them, I had to join the team.”
She called running “a hobby” at that point, but she liked winning races. However, in her first Junior Olympics at 7, she did not medal.
“She was hysterical,” her mother said. “That triggered it.”
After that meet, Nyjari remembers saying, “I’m never going to run without getting a medal.”
In her second Junior Olympics, she medaled in the 800 and 1,500 meters, and her thinking began to shift.
“I realized I can compete on a national level, and this can take me somewhere,” she said.
That set her on a course to becoming one of the top high school middle-distance runners in the country, a 13-time state champion and a six-time All-American. She has medaled in every race but two since she was 9.
At Franklin, Nyjari has won 11 individual state championships and two relay crowns. The Baltimore Sun’s Track and Field Performer of the Year four times, including this past winter, she was Maryland’s Gatorade Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year last spring.
She holds the state championship meet record in the 500 meters indoors (1 minute, 13.3 seconds) and the Class 3A record in the 800 outdoors (2:11.27). On April 20, she won the 800 in a meet-record time of 2:10.55 at Oakland Mills’ Scorpion Classic.
In the 500, her time of 1:12.39 at the Virginia Showcase in January was the third-fastest run by a high school girl in the United States this past indoor season. It ranks second all time in Maryland, behind only the 1:11.44 posted by Towson Catholic’s Devon Williams in 2005, according to MileSplit.com.
At the Penn Relays the last weekend in April, she ran a 54.2-second split as she and Indians teammates Tylar Colbert, Jasmine Johnson and Cameron Hinton finished sixth in the Championships of America 4x400. Their time 3:44.42 was third best among teams from the United States.
Earlier this month at the Baltimore County championships, she won her third straight 800-meter title, won her second 1,600-meter title and ran on the winning 4x400 relay team to lead the Indians to the team championship. She ran the 400 in meet-record time but Hinton nipped her by 1.6 tenths of a second.
As she prepares for her final weekend of high school track at the state Class 3A championships Friday and Saturday at Morgan State before heading to San Diego State, Nyjari has a clear goal.
“I’m going for all the records,” she said with a big smile. “In this four years, I’ve come really close to breaking the state record in the 800 — last year, by tenths of a second — and I really want that record and I want the 400 record, too, and hopefully the 4x4[00 relay], too.”
To her first coach with the Cheetahs, Foster Lampkin, that potential was evident from the moment she stopped cartwheeling and started running.
“I saw from the beginning, she’s going to be a champion,” Lampkin said. “I told her parents the first day I trained her. I saw the potential. It was her turnover speed, her form and technique. She could beat most of our sprinters, and she was a middle-distance runner, a distance runner with speed.”
She originally wanted to be a sprinter but found her niche in the middle distances, 400 to 800 meters.
“I was tricked into it,” she said with a laugh. “Indoors, my mom was like, ‘OK, run one lap,’ which is only 200 meters, but then when we got outside, she was like, ‘Run one lap.’ But it’s different because outdoors, it’s longer, so that was 400 meters. Then she tricked me again the next season and told me to run two laps indoors, which is 400 meters, and then she did the same thing outdoors. That’s 800 meters. Then I found out I was pretty good at 800, so I stuck with it.”
Although her mother has been her primary coach, she’s never pushed Nyjari. She ran when she wanted to, but if she was too tired from gymnastics, it was OK not to run.
Still, Nyjari kept medaling in national races, and her times earned state and national rankings. The strength and endurance she developed from gymnastics, combined with her natural speed and athleticism, gave her an advantage over most runners her age. She added to that with workouts with her mother on the track and on long runs with her father, Walter McNeil.
“We’d see she’s running a lot of the times these other kids are running, and she really did not train,” Tonya McNeil said. “In 2014, she stopped gymnastics … and decided to take a chance on track. Once she started training, that’s when her rankings were unbelievable. She had a lot of records. She has all the records for the races that she runs for the school, and she’s got top-10 rankings in the nation.”
She holds Franklin records in seven events indoors and outdoors, from the 400 to the 1,000, and she’s also part of three record-setting relay teams.
“She’s obviously very talented and hard-working,” Franklin coach Paul Hannsen said, “but her consistency is very impressive. She’s better than just about everybody she’s running against, but every single championship we’ve had for four years, she’s performed. Normally, somebody’s going to get sick or have a bad day, or anything can happen, but she’s just performed in every single championship.”
Hereford coach Brad Duvall is most impressed with Nyjari’s range and toughness.
“She doesn’t get flustered if she gets beat. I’ve seen other kids with her talent get beat and go into a shell, but with her, it seems like it just motivates her more, even though it rarely happens,” said Duvall.
For Nyjari, who has a 3.47 GPA and wants to major in kinesiology, San Diego State has everything she looked for — including warm weather. Training in chilly and sometimes snowy spring weather isn’t for her.
Before she packs her bags for the West Coast, she hopes to pack for Finland and the under-20 world track championships in July. She needs to run 2:09.5 in the 800 to qualify for the U.S. team trials next month. She came close at 2:09.56 in the Class 3A North regional championships last week. She ran 2:07.34 last year.
Nyjari, clearly a runner now, also is aiming for the 2020 Olympics. She trains a few times a year with her idol, Ajeé Wilson, a 2016 Olympian and the U.S. record-holder in the 800, and Wilson’s coach, Derek Thompson, in Philadelphia. Nyjari believes running at San Diego State will prepare her for top-level competition beyond college.
“I think I have real potential to go to the Olympics, and I think San Diego has the best resources to get me to those goals,” Nyjari said. “I’m very self-motivated, so it’s about me reaching my goals and seeing what my highest potential can be that’s driving me. I want to see how far I can go and how good I can be.”