For most athletes, the transition from high school to college is difficult. It’s quite a challenge competing against teenagers one day, then stepping up against grown men and women the next.

Huntsville’s Cleo Tyson is different from most athletes. For the four-time state champion sprinter, it was nothing moving from Huntsville High School to the University of Tennessee. It didn’t take Tyson long before she was competing on a national level against some of the country’s top collegiate runners. There was no riding the pine and no redshirt for Tyson, the sprinter who made a huge mark in 2005, her first year with the Lady Volunteers.

Tyson won a gold medal at the Southeastern Conference Outdoor Championships this spring, she claimed two golds and a silver at the NCAA Mideast Regional and she completed her first collegiate season with a silver and two bronze medals at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Sacramento, Calif.

With a sensational second half of her rookie campaign, Tyson earned Freshman Runner of the Year honors in the Southeastern Conference. Tyson’s terrific freshman campaign was voted No. 8 in The Huntsville Item’s Top 10 Sports Stories of 2005.

Coming out party

Tyson, a highly recruited runner who graduated from HHS in the spring of 2004, showed her Tennessee coaches what Texas track fans saw each May for three years at the Southeastern Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships this spring. Tyson roared to victory in the 100, finished second in the 200 and anchored the Lady Vols’ 4x100-meter relay to runner-up honors, as the Tennessee women finished strong and grabbed third place at the Southeastern Conference meet.

“It was a super last day,” Tennessee head coach J.J. Clark said. “These youngsters have been competing all year, and they showed me their true character tonight. We have three SEC individual champions, which is the most Tennessee has had since 1991. We also had five runner-up performances. And Cleo Tyson had a banner meet.”

Tyson exploded quickly out of the blocks and never trailed en route to a surprisingly fleet 11.25 clocking on a cool May evening in Nashville.

Favorite Shalonda Solomon of South Carolina followed Tyson across the line in second in 11.29, while Lady Vol senior Toyin Olupona settled for fifth in 11.48 to help Tennessee round up 14 points in the straight sprint.

The victory by Tyson marked the first time a Lady Vol claimed an SEC Outdoor 100 title since 1984. Tyson became the third Lady Volunteer to win the race at the conference meet, joining Mary Bolden, Benita Fitzgerald (1981, 1983) and Sharrieffa Barksdale (1982) in that company. The latter two went on to Olympic careers, something Tyson has been shooting for since she was tiny.

Tyson’s brisk time vaulted her into fourth on the NCAA national list and ranked her as the No. 3 American woman and No. 8 female sprinter, period, in the world at that point in the season. It also rated her second on Tennessee’s all-time performers list with the third-best clocking in Big Orange annals.

“For Cleo Tyson to come into this meet and win as a freshman shows she is a very talented sprinter,” Clark said. “Shalonda Solomon is just a great competitor. Coach (Caryl Smith) Gilbert had her ready, and Cleo executed very well.”

Solomon turned the tables later in the evening in the 200 meters, as the South Carolina sprinter rolled to a 22.74 clocking to hold off Tyson (22.88). Tyson once again got out well, but Solomon overcame the Lady Vols’ advantage over the final 75 meters to seize top honors. Still, the Lady Vol charted a personal best that ranked her second on Tennessee’s all-time performers list with the sixth-quickest clocking. It also moved her to seventh on the U.S. list and ninth on the world list in 2005.

Tennessee’s 4x100m relay unit, ranked third nationally, began the evening with a 43.98 result to finish second behind South Carolina and collect eight points. The quartet of sophomore Tianna Madison, freshman Courtney Champion, Olupona and Tyson charted its second-fastest reading of the season and the eighth-best effort in school history. The outcome was also the best by a Tennessee women’s sprint-relay team since a 1998 foursome took second in Gainesville, Fla.

Tennessee’s 4x4, meanwhile, closed the evening in impressive fashion, getting the stick home second in 3:34.02. Tyson, who was the runner-up (with 22 points to 26 for Alabama’s Beth Mallory) for the Commissioner’s Trophy that goes to the meet’s highest scoring individual, also had a hand in that relay. She ran the second leg, joining freshman LaTonya Loche, junior Patricia Hall and senior Antoinette Gorham in that season-best showing.

Raising the bar at regionals

Tyson claimed a pair of gold medals and a silver at the NCAA Mideast Regional in Bloomington, Ind. Her day started as she anchored the Tennessee’s sprint-relay team to a title. The race wasn’t even close, as Tyson and her teammates beat out the competition by a quarter of a second.

An hour later, Tyson ran in the 100-meter dash finals and was edged by LSU freshman Kelly Baptiste, who ran an 11.26-second time compared to Tyson’s 11.29. But Tyson got her revenge later in the night. In the 200-meter dash, she crossed the finish line at 22.91 just ahead of Baptiste’s 22.93.

Tyson’s super performance in Indiana earned her a spot at the NCAA national meet, set for Sacramento in June.

No big deal

As Tyson was getting ready to run in one of the biggest track meets of her life, she talked by telephone to Item sports editor Jason Barfield. Competing in three events — the 100, 200 and 4x100-meter relay — Tyson appeared prepared, but loose.

“I am not really nervous,” Tyson said. “I am just thinking about this as another track meet. That is the way you have to approach it.”

Tyson did not go to the national meet as just another competitor. She was considered one of the favorites to win all three of her events. After losing to Baptiste in the 100 at regionals, Tyson came back to beat her in the 200 by just .02 seconds.

Tyson said she wasn’t thinking about getting back at Baptiste; instead, she concentrated on running a solid time.

“I didn’t want to get caught up in racing people and just go out and run my race,” Tyson said. “It felt good to know you’re first, but I was really more focused on the time I was running than the place I got.”

Tyson said running at the regional meet and competing for a chance at the NCAA Championships wasn’t too different than the meets she ran in high school.

“It was kind of like regionals in high school, but five people advanced here instead of two,” she said. “You had to be on your top, though, and you had to be focused. I tried not to get all hyped up and not think about it being a trip to nationals and just stay focused.”

Tyson said the biggest difference between running in high school compared to college is the talent level of the other runners.

“A bad start in college can cost you a race,” Tyson said. “I know I have to get everything together. In high school, I could get out of the block late and still win the race by 50 meters. Here, I could finish last if that happens.”

No problems at nationals

Tyson’s run at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship got off to a good start. Competing in three events, the former Huntsville speedster made quite an impression in her first national championship in Sacramento, Calif.

She started the meet by anchoring the Lady Vols’ 4x100-meter relay team, which won the second preliminary heat with a time of 43.75 seconds. The time was the second-best of the day behind Texas‚ 43.60.

In the first round of the 100-meter dash, Tyson ran the fastest time of the round with an 11.33, edging Marshevet Hooker of Texas who ran an 11.39.

In the semifinals, Tyson won her heat again with an 11.42, which earned her the second seed for the finals. Hooker ran the fastest semifinal time matching Tyson’s first-round 11.33.

Tyson ran the fifth-fastest time in the semifinals of the 200, which earned her a spot in the finals. She finished second in her heat with a time of 23.35 seconds. Tremedia Brice of Texas Southern won the heat with a 23.26. The fastest time of the first round was posted by Shalonda Soloman of South Carolina who ran a 23-flat. In the semis, Tyson improved to 23.06 and finished third in her heat.

Tyson finished her first trip to the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships on a good note. A day after taking silver in the 100-meter dash and bronze in the 400-meter relay, Tyson claimed her third medal of the championship in the 200. The former Huntsville Hornet ran a 23.01 in the finals to take third behind Sheri-Ann Brooks of Florida International, who edged freshman Shalondo Solomon of South Carolina by one-hundredth of a second. Brooks ran a 22.85.

Staying busy in the summertime

Tyson did not shut it down after claiming three medals at the NCAA national meet. She ran in the 2005 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Carson, Calif., later in the summer. Tyson swept the 100- and 200-meter dash titles in the junior championships (under 20 years old).

After rolling to an 11.45 time that won her heat and stood as the fastest time of the preliminary round of the 100, Tyson came back later in the evening to chart an 11.44 mark in the finals that no one came close to matching.

She then turned her attention to the 200 and posted the fourth-fastest qualifying time with a 23.43 mark on her way to winning her heat in the prelims. In the finals a day later, Tyson clocked a blistering 22.93 for her second first-place finish of the meet.

The Lady Vol standout earned a trip to the 2005 Pan American Junior Athletics Championships, where she represented the United States during the summer competition in Ontario, Canada.

And Tyson struck gold again by winning the 100 by a quarter of a second with a time of 11.52 to cap off one incredible year.

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