Running for her father, Daniels emerges as top sprinter

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              FILE- In this July 26, 2019, file photo, Teahna Daniels, right, beats Morolake Akinosun, left, to the finish line, winning the women's 100-meter dash at the U.S. Championships athletics meet in Des Moines, Iowa. Daniels is the newest American sprinter on the scene. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
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DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Before a race, Teahna Daniels instinctively clutches the gold necklace dangling from her neck.

It’s become almost a subconscious part of her routine. The necklace is a tribute to dad.

On the starting line, she can almost hear his voice, too: “Run hard. Push yourself. Be your best.”

Daniels is the newest American sprinter on the scene, winning the 100 meters at nationals to earn her place at the world championships and announce her presence less than a year away from the Tokyo Games. It’s just the way her dad envisioned it. Wellice Daniels died of a stroke on Jan. 26, 2018 — a date that’s inscribed on the necklace that she constantly wears.

“My dad and I bonded through track,” said Daniels , the 22-year-old out of the University of Texas whose event starts Saturday inside Khalifa International Stadium. “I always run for him. I always run for my family.”

A quick story: One of her first competitions was as an 8-year-old while wearing sandals. She lined up against a group of neighborhood boys for a friendly race.

She lost.

Her mom, Linda Latson, called her over for some advice — go put on some tennis shoes. A re-race was held.

She won.

After that, Daniels was on her way —club teams, helping the Americans to a 4×100 Pan-American Junior title in 2015. High school team, where she captured back-to-back state titles in the 100 and 200 at The First Academy in Florida. On to Texas, where she became an NCAA indoor champion at 60 meters.

Through all that, her dad had a front-row seat. Daniels’ mom and dad separated when she was young and she went to live with her dad in middle school. Track was their glue.

He attended practices, standing along the fence and giving pointers.

“I appreciated it. But I was always like, ‘Dad, go sit down somewhere. Go sit in the stands,'” she said. “Now that I think about it, he was just being really supportive in that part of my life.”

That support meant everything. That’s why she can’t forget that day.

On Jan. 26, 2018, she was approaching the hotel lobby in Lubbock, Texas, about to go to the track for a pre-meet workout, when her mom called and said her dad died.

Impossible, Teahna remembers saying. She just spoke with him the night before when he wished her good luck and told her she loved him — “the same stuff he always says to me,” she recounted.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she added. “My dad was really gone?”

Daniels crumbled to the lobby floor and had to be helped to her room.

Then, a pledge: He would be as big a part of her journey going forward as he had been up to that point.

Same with her mom and all of her siblings.

Family first.

A friend made the necklace for her. On one side there’s the word “Queen.” It’s a reminder to act like royalty — mom’s advice.

There’s also the date of her dad’s death.

“A reminder to keep working hard and keep going,” she explained.

To get leaner and stronger, Daniels said she dropped 19 pounds. She was among the favorites going into the NCAA championships in June — her final collegiate meet on her home track.

She wound up a disheartening fourth.

“I thought too much in my head about everything,” explained Daniels, who recently signed a deal with Nike. “I lost my focus.”

It made her refocus.

“No winner has ever come up to you saying, ‘We need to work on this,'” her coach, Edrick Floréal said. “They’re thinking about celebrating. The kid that doesn’t win wants to talk. They’re like, ‘OK, what do I need to improve on?'”

That was Daniels. So Floreal gave her a list of little things to accomplish and she’d call him with updates:

More ice baths? Check.

Walks in the morning as a way to stretch out? Check.

Watch more video? Check.

“She reassessed,” Floréal said. “She was a different person after that.”

The results came at nationals, where Daniels was not really on the radar in the 100.

As she stepped into the blocks that night, she recalled the advice her father always gave her: Just run your race.

From lane 4, she fell behind early before surging to the front for the win in a time of 11.20 seconds. She earned a spot to worlds that day along with English Gardner and Morolake Akinosun (Tori Bowie already had an automatic berth as the defending world champion).

All of the sudden, a deep American field looking to earn a spot for the Tokyo Games next summer just got a whole lot deeper. The win at nationals was highly emotional for Daniels, who after the race found her mom for an moving embrace.

“She’s seen me at some of my lowest moments and to see me win, it meant a lot,” Daniels said. “She’s always there, supporting me.”

Dad, too.

“I always feel close to him,” Daniels said.