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Last spring was when Jordan Smith discovered her niche on the track, how her blend of strength and flat-out speed was best suited to the grueling sprint of the 400 meters. She was almost immediately one of the best runners in the state in the event, hitting a time under 57 seconds by her fifth race.

But in 2018, Smith’s senior year at Lambert, was the year she really started learning about the race.

“It was definitely an experimental year,” Smith said.

It was still a successful one, to be certain. Smith set a personal best of 54.94 at the Coaches Invitational in March, her first race of the year, and she hovered around that range through the season, eventually finishing fourth in Class 7A with a time of 55.80 in the finals. The All-FCN Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year was easily the best in the county in that event, winning it by more than three seconds at the region meet.

To deal with the reality that her times wouldn’t drop at the rate they did her junior year, Smith looked inward. She focused on her form: knees up, not too deep with her elbows. She tried different strategies in the 400: going hardest in the opening stretch, or saving energy for a kick at the end of the race. And she zeroed in on the mental aspect of the race, of tricking her body to keep pushing when lactic acid was building and it felt like she was cashed out.

“Mentally, I’ve gotten stronger for sure,” Smith said.

This season was also more challenging physically than any before for Smith. For the first time, she ran in indoor meets with her club team before the high school season, recording sub-56 times on a shorter track. But the physical toll of that schedule started hitting Smith at the end of the spring season.

“My legs were just so tired,” she said. “…By the end of the season, it got tough – really tough.”

Smith is confident that her time will further improve in college, though, especially with the weight training and more intensive practice schedule offered there.

She’s one of three athletes in the county’s senior class to sign with Vanderbilt, and Smith’s recruiting schedule might have been the most abbreviated of the bunch. She didn’t decide that she wanted to run track in college until her junior year, and the process of contacting schools didn’t begin in earnest until the following summer. On one trip, Smith visited five different schools.

“That was kind of stressful, having to cram it all in, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Smith said.