Taniah Stephens set in the blocks at the Jim Green Invitational with butterflies in her stomach. It was her first indoor meet for Ohio, and she was set to run in an event that Ohio rarely competed in. Now, she’s been etched in the record books.
Stephens broke Ohio’s 40-year-old program record Jan. 14 for the 300-meter dash with a time of 40.61 seconds. For Stephens, it was like any other run. She focused on executing the proper body position and exaggerating her knee drive. She didn’t even know she had broken the record. In her mind, she was just competing.
But a few months ago, Stephens was ready to retire.
“Last year was going to be my last year. I was going to quit track,” Stephens said. “I just didn’t have any passion for it. I was not happy at all. I was ready to email the coaches and let them know that this was my time to depart from track and field.”
Stephens turned to her family with a heavy heart. She was unsure of herself and her future. However, her family encouraged her to pursue another year with Ohio. Together, they prayed for change, and Stephens put her trust into track.
It wasn’t the first time she had taken a chance on something new. Before high school, Stephens never pictured herself as a track and field athlete. To her, it was something her brothers and mother had been known for. She wanted to be a basketball player, and her running experience never extended beyond racing her siblings in the street. But in her sophomore year of high school, she joined the Villa Maria Academy track and field team at her mother’s suggestion.
“I was trying to be the one that didn’t run track. I was trying to play basketball,” Stephens said. “But basketball didn’t work out.”
The newly minted runner was added to the 4x100-meter relay — the same relay her mom earned a state medal for in high school — as well as the 200-meter and 400-meter events. Before she knew it, Stephens had made a name for herself. She and her relay team reached the 2018 Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association State Championships.
After high school, Stephens knew she was going to further her education, but she didn’t know if collegiate track was for her. She wasn’t sure if she shared the same passion for track that she had for her education. If she chose to continue competing, however, she would be the first collegiate athlete in her family.
Ohio offered Stephens the best of both worlds. She could continue competing while earning a degree in journalism. The idea excited Stephens, and she took the offer.
“Nobody in my family is a Division I athlete or has competed in college in general, no matter the division,” Stephens said. “I wanted to really do this for my family and let them know that somebody is putting in work for them.”
Stephens’ drive comes from her family and their shared faith. The encouragement from her family and the music of gospel artists like Jonathan Baker provide her with a sense of serenity before she sets on the blocks.
Track and field hasn’t always been serene for Stephens, though. Injuries plagued her career at Ohio. She had only run a handful of races and was consistently having to miss the indoor or outdoor seasons, sometimes both. She’s had to learn to build her confidence from the ground up.
She credits Ohio coaches Sarah Pease, Ian Kellogg and Danielle Burbage for pushing her to expand her horizons and stretch into her limbs. They have helped her learn how to trust her abilities and others. Above all, they’ve helped restore her love for the sport.
Track and field is Stephens’ stress release. She knows if she’s having a rough day, there is the promise of loving arms waiting for her at practice. It’s her safe haven. Stephens has fallen in and out of love with track and field throughout her career, but now, it’s how she copes. The adrenaline rushing through her veins eases her mind and takes her to a happy place. It makes her feel like she’s home.
“When the world is crashing down, I can rely on track and field,” Stephens said.