On a cool, cloudy morning at the Kansas Relays, the starter pistol sent eight college women tearing down the track.
The Cloud County Community College freshman in lane eight, Jatoria McGirt, has always been fast. A few weeks earlier in her very first collegiate 100-meter race, she pulled a hamstring at 80 meters and still won.
She’s smart, too. She knows the hardest thing to outrun is where you come from.
But thanks to a lot of strangers in Concordia, Kan., home of Cloud County, she’s getting the chance to win races — and maybe a restart in life.
“I know this can all be taken from me, and I’ve got nowhere else to go,” she said after finishing second in that Kansas Relays preliminary heat April 21 in Lawrence. “I love my family and my home, but I don’t want to go back there.
“I’m so blessed for what people here have done for me.”
McGirt, 20, grew up in Pahokee, Fla., a hard-times town on the banks of Lake Okeechobee. Locals call the place “the muck.” Her father, or at least the man she calls her father, got sent to prison for drugs, her uncle was found dead in a canal and her mother struggled mightily to keep the lights on.
McGirt dropped out of school to help care for her younger siblings. A smart girl who could run fast enough to play tackle football with the boys, she called this period “my darkness” and wondered if, at 17, she’d already used up her share of life’s allotted joy.
“Most people don’t get out of there,” she said.
But then a preacher down there made a phone call. Pastor Randall King had a far-angling tie to Cloud County, and he pitched people there an idea about a young woman who might thrive in Kansas sunshine.
This isn’t necessarily a story about an athlete. Folks at Cloud County had no idea when, or if, McGirt would ever run a race. She wasn’t a high school graduate, struggled with reading comprehension, couldn’t pass a GED and, until she did, couldn’t enroll in college.
But they took her in, and took her on. She became sort of a community project for Concordia, about 150 miles northwest of Topeka. McGirt started working with Cloud County’s adult education program. People volunteered to help with tutoring, including the track coach’s son, who came from Lawrence on weekends.
“She was struggling, and he said he’d love to help,” coach Ted Schmitz said.
After failing the socials studies part of the test multiple times and faced with losing it all, McGirt finally nipped the GED at the tape.
“She went home for Christmas and saw what was going on there and her mother struggle to put food on the table,” said Debbie Kearn, head of the college’s adult education program. “She didn’t want that for herself. And that girl came back after Christmas and put in the work.
“She said, ‘I have to do this.’ And she did, and we all got to watch that happen.”
Away from ‘the muck’
Pastor King met McGirt through his work with foster kids.
“I learned she came from a dysfunctional family,” King said. “There was violence and drugs in her world, but there was never a profane word come out of her mouth. That always struck me about her. She was really not the world around her. She was the oldest of four kids and had a lot of responsibility dumped on her.
“That girl could run, but bottom line she had to quit school to take care of the younger ones. Education was not a priority in her family.”
King had a cousin who years earlier had attended Cloud County. That’s why he called. As for McGirt now being amid the calm of wheat fields and pastures in north-central Kansas, King chuckled and said, “Perfect.”
She arrived in Concordia in the summer of 2015. Shy, quiet, unwilling to share much. Kearn said she quickly passed the science, math and language arts parts of the GED, but struggled to master the social studies portion.
“She didn’t know anything about the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution,” Kearn said. “She didn’t know anything about social studies.”
McGirt repeatedly failed that part of the test. But after the Christmas trip home, she worked even harder, breaking only for lunch and dinner and going until 9 p.m.
“I’ve never seen a student work so hard,” Kearn said.
By March, she still hadn’t passed the GED after multiple attempts. She had one more chance. If she didn’t pass by March 9, she would lose all financial support, any chance of going to college and likely head back to “the muck.”
As that final chance to take the test approached, Schmitz said, McGirt seemed at peace with whatever happened.
“A lot of people would have given up by that time,” said Schmitz, who’s been at the school for 36 years. “And I think she was at the end. She was at peace. I think she had decided that if she didn’t pass, then God had something else planned for her.”
She passed. And she knows it was because of those people in Concordia, the ones who didn’t know her when she arrived, but cared about what happened to her.
“They all come together for me,” McGirt said. “I hope it’s because they know how far I can go.”
“In life ... everything.”
Footsteps to follow
Not a bad freshman year for Jatoria McGirt.
After those early troubles, she’s now making A’s and B’s. Her 11.97 in the 100 and 24.67 in the 200 qualify her for both events in May in the nationals — the National Junior College Athletic Association track and field championship — in Hutchinson, Kan.
Between events at the Kansas Relays, though, Schmitz the coach wanted to talk about the student.
“She got so she wanted to read more,” he said. “She got to thinking social studies is pretty interesting stuff. She’s always asking questions.”
The athletic part?
“She’s learning right now,” he said. “Next year, she’ll break out.”
That’s McGirt’s plan. She wants to run fast for her siblings, ages 6, 12 and 16 back home.
“I’m trying to make it good for them,” she said. “I want them to know what I’m doing. I pray they follow in my footsteps. I hope they can find people to help them like Concordia did for me.”
She got sick at the Kansas Relays and didn’t get to compete in the 100-meter final. But just before that, she anchored the 4x100 relay. She took the baton with her team in third and closed the gap to claim second place for Cloud County.
“I’ve always been fast,” she said. “And I know I got to keep going if I want to get anywhere.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182