April 9, 2014
By Christopher Walsh
When most people win a big trophy, they usually like to put it someplace special or on display, perhaps with some extra lighting, but nearly always in a place of prominence.
Not so for University of Alabama junior Remona Burchell.
After she recently became the first woman in school history to win a 60-meter NCAA indoor championship, she placed the trophy alongside her other major awards, but in possibly the last place anybody would think to look.
"I put it in my closet," the soft-spoken Burchell said. "It's still in the box.
"It's in my closet with my two trophies that I got from junior college. They're all together, right there."
However, that doesn't mean that she doesn't look at her hardware, or at least their images, on a regular basis. While the real things remain packed away for now, she has photos of them on her cell phone.
"I still can't believe that I'm a national champion," she said. "I still think about it, 'Like really? This just happened to me', but it did."
To give you an idea of how unlikely Burchell's victory was in Albuquerque on March 15, consider that this was her first season - indoor or outdoor - with the Crimson Tide after transferring from Butler County Community College in Kansas.
She was the junior college national champion in the 100 meters (11.34 seconds) and finished second in the 200 (23.43), but her best time in the 60 meters before this year was 7.34 seconds. Burchell also finished a solid second to Kentucky's Dezerea Bryant (7.24 compared to 7.16) at the Southeastern Conference meet at College Station, Texas two weeks prior to the NCAA Championships.
The random lane assignments at the NCAA Championships landed Bryant in the favored spot, lane 4, in the first of two heats to determine the eight qualifiers for the finals. Burchell drew lane 8, where competitors are usually literally on the outside looking in at the winners.
Even when she ran 7.20 in the preliminary, it didn't guarantee advancing after placing third behind Bryant (7.17) and Florida's Shayla Sanders (7.18). With the top two finishers in each heat and the next four fastest runners moving on Burchell had to wait out the second heat only to have a better time than the entire group, even second-seeded Jasmine Todd of Oregon.
So, in the finals Burchell was in Lane 2, yet few eyes were on her as Bryant was again in the spotlight in Lane 4. That is, until the gun sounded.
"My start at SEC's was terrible, so she got away from me," Burchell said about Bryant. "But at nationals my start was perfect, so she didn't get a chance to get away from me that time."
Regardless, the race was tight throughout, as Bryant had a good start as well, but at the midway point was clearly behind. Even after it was over and the times were posted, 7.11 and 7.12, Burchell was still sort of in a state of shock.
Then she finally started clapping and jumping around.
"I knew it was close and I knew that I won, but I was still waiting to see if it was really me," she said. "It was so close that I was the one who won."
Even the coaching staff was "a little" surprised as well, as sprints and hurdles assistant Matt Kane described. Burchell had shown some of that potential in practice, but few have everything come together at such a pivotal moment like that.
"Usually with sprinters they show flashes, then backtrack some, and show flashes before they get to the top," Kane said.
In addition to placing first, Burchell's time was the second-fastest in NCAA history, and the eighth best in the world this year, professionals included.
It also landed her on the official watch list of 10 student-athletes up for The Bowerman Trophy, which is considered the sport's Heisman. She's the first female Crimson Tide athlete to do so and second overall, joining former NCAA men's 400-meter champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Kirani James.
So yeah, she's fast. Really fast.
"I've been doing track and field since I was small," Burchell said. "Primary school in Jamaica, which would be middle school over here, and from that time I knew that I was fast.
"But I really, really didn't expect to run this fast my first year here at Alabama. Not so quick. Not so soon."
Growing up in the Montego Bay area, which is on the opposite side of the island from the Kingston region where teammates Candicea Bernard (throws) and Yanique Malcolm (distance runner) are from, Burchell used to race against friends in the streets and pretty much always win.
She's the only one in her family who races and a successful high school career led to Butler, where it was tough to be so far away from home and "cold."
"When I came for a visit here I really fell in love with the campus," Burchell said about being recruited by Kane. "The athletes were kind and loving, and they really made me feel welcome. I really, really liked it here."
It also worked out that the three Jamaicans, who previously didn't know each other; all visited the Capstone at the same time. Pretty soon they were texting back and forth, with one committing and then another.
Burchell subsequently visited Texas Tech, but the decision was already essentially a formality.
"In my mind I was thinking about Alabama the whole time," she said.
Bernard now calls the two countrymen-turned-teammates her rock.
"Yeah mon," said Bernard, who went to Central Arizona College while Malcolm attended Essex County College in New Jersey. "The team is great, and they back you all of the time. As an athlete, that's what you want."
Make no mistake, Burchell still has doubts. On the plane to New Mexico she kept thinking to herself, "Why am I going to nationals? I'm not even going to place."
Yet aided by the constant reminder of what she's already accomplished, the disbelief is slowly beginning to wane as her confidence grows. As her first NCAA outdoor season kicks into gear, Burchell is begging to think bigger, like eventually going pro, competing for her country, and maybe someday running in the Olympics.
One thing's for sure, though, she's going to need a bigger closet.