'This one's for you': How FHSU's Alexandra Hart was inspired to reach new heights
Shattering her own school record and checking off her top goal of the season in the process, Fort Hays State freshman high jumper Alexandra Hart was visibly emotional when she cleared the 6-foot bar at the NCAA Division II Indoor Track and Field Championships last Friday in Birmingham, Ala.
The newly-minted national champion could be seen fighting back tears after making the height and capping off an undefeated high jump season.
"A lot of people think I was emotional because of clearing the height," Hart said, but the true reason went deeper, she explained.
After she cleared the bar, Hart's thoughts immediately went to Waynette Bowers, a close family friend who died last August after being diagnosed with brain and lung cancer.
"When I was younger, she had me sign a napkin, saying that one day I would do something amazing and everyone would want my autograph, and she wanted to be the first one to get it," Hart said.
Hart said Bowers was known as "nana" around her hometown of Rolla, located in the Southwest corner of Kansas.
"She was a huge part of my life for most of my life," Hart said. "She was very close to my parents and she was always over at our house. She was just a huge part of the family, especially because we moved seven hours away from my actual grandparents, so she was kind of like another grandparent to me."
Hart said that while she was in elementary school in Rolla, she watched Bowers beat breast cancer. Hart and her family were devastated several years later when Bowers was rediagnosed with cancer.
"... It was amazing when she beat breast cancer, and it was very hard to hear that she had gotten brain and lung cancer, because she was just a huge part of my life," Hart said. "... I believe if anything would have happened to my parents she would have got custody of my sister and I."
Hart said that if you look closely at the video clip of her clearing the 6-foot mark, you can see her pay tribute to her friend.
"Right before I jumped ... you can see me look up and say, 'This one's for you,' and that's when I cleared (6 feet). And that's why I got so emotional, because that one was for her, and it felt like she was there with me."
It was a powerful ending to what was a resoundingly successful indoor season for Hart.
Hart's clearance of 6-0 (1.83 meters) shattered her own school record by 1.5 inches. The jump is the seventh-best mark for an NCAA DII indoor high jump champion all-time, is tied for seventh on the all-time NCAA DII performance list and is the top mark by a Division II athlete since 2015.
The mark could also qualify Hart for the USATF Olympic Trials. The jump put her in a tie for 13th on the national performance chart.
"Fingers crossed, hopefully I get into the trials this summer," Hart said.
Hart, who stands 5-foot-9, clinched the national title on her third attempt at 5-9.75. With a championship already in the bag, she said the tension was off as she went for the 6-foot bar.
"After winning, it was kind of like 'Ok ... I really have nothing to lose. I just have things to gain,' " she said. "Really, I could just relax a little bit, breathe and just focus on getting over the bar.'"
Hart is the eighth NCAA Division II National Champion in the history of the FHSU women's track and field program and first since Madison Wolf won the javelin title in 2018. She is the Tigers' fourth indoor national champ and the first since 2011 (Christa Bergmann, weight throw). Janet Eck is the only other Tiger to win a high jump national championship, taking outdoor titles in 1998 and 1999.
The transition to college meets proved to be seamless for Hart, who was a Class 1A state champ in the high jump as a junior at Rolla High School and also placed in several other events throughout her career.
"My first (college) meet, I was extremely nervous," Hart said. "But, luckily, it was a smaller meet. ... That made it a little bit easier to go from a high school meet to a collegiate meet. After that win, I think I gained a little more confidence, like, 'Ok, I know I can do this.'
Like every other spring senior athlete last year, Hart missed out on her final season in track because of the pandemic.
"There's always that thing going in your back of head: 'I hope I remember how to do this," Hart said. "... It was very encouraging to see that I could still do it after having a season canceled. It gave me a lot more confidence, like, 'Yeah, this is real. I can still jump. I know what I'm doing.'"
"It was kind of sad to not go and compete at state and hopefully get another state title there," she added. "But it ended up being pretty good, actually, to have some time off, because I'm from such a small school and played every sport. So I think I was wearing myself down a little bit before track season came around."
But Hart said she believes being a multi-sport athlete helped pay dividends for high jumping.
"I believe that being a volleyball player really helped with some of my vertical and high jump, and vice versa, I think my high jump also helped me with my vertical in volleyball," Hart said. "Just being in competitive sports all year long, the hunger for wanting to win kind of grows every time you play every sport. It keeps you in shape, and you never really feel like, 'Man, I should have been working out more.'"
She said Fort Hays State was the first school to recruit her and it didn't take long to become sold on the university and head coach Jason McCullough's track and field program.
"Fort Hays, the campus was beautiful," she said. "It was not super far from my family... The people I met, all the coaches and some of the athletes, they all seemed super nice, and I really liked the high jump program. Especially coming here, I have such a good connection with the high jump coach, Ty Haas. He just makes it fun and interesting every day."
Hart was quick to credit Haas for the marks she's enjoyed in her freshman season,
"He really did help me so much," she said. "My marks have improved so much since high school, and he has a huge part of that. He was a huge factor in me getting that 6-foot mark. He was probably the happiest for me than anybody. He got a little emotional when I cleared it as well.
"He told me afterwards, 'How dare you make me cry in public.' He's so supportive, along with my family and my high school coach, I had to call her right away and let her know what had gone on."
She also thanked "an incredible support group" in her FHSU teammates.
"My phone was blowing up afterwards," Hart said. "My teammates all watched it live. They all texted me right after it happened. There were so many people watching it.
"They even met us at the facility when we got back to Kansas. A huge group of them were out there cheering for us as we pulled in. The support here at Fort Hays and with my family is just amazing and I don't think I could have gone anywhere without them."
Hart was one of four Tigers to earn All-American indoor honors, along with Lyric Holman (60m dash), Ryan Stanley (pole vault) and Matthew Pieper (heptathlon).
The Tiger track and field teams will open the outdoor season on Friday at the Emporia State Spring Invite.