Christine Merrill is heading into today's NCAA Division II Track and Field Championships as the No. 2-ranked 400-meter hurdler in the nation.
That's where she was ranked a year ago, and she wound up placing first.
"I feel I'm a lot more ready this year," said Merrill, a senior mechanical engineering major at UC San Diego who didn't start her track career until Bakersfield Christian High School began offering the sport her junior year. "I'm excited to compete with other people."
The Division II nationals begin today and conclude Saturday at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C.
Merrill, 22, is coming off a sensational meet at the California Collegiate Athletic Association championships May 6-8, where she won three individual events and competed on two winning relay teams to earn the female athlete of the meet award for the second straight year.
She calls the 400 hurdles her best and event. Merrill set a UCSD school record with her winning 58.59 at last year's nationals. She clocked 59.13 for first place at the CCAA championships earlier this month.
"It's just so much fun," Merrill said. "It's so technical, but it's mostly running instead of hurdling."
The Division II national leader in the 400 hurdles is Aisha Adams of Angelo State University (Texas) with a 57.94 at its David Noble Relays on April 8.
"Christine was ranked behind her last year and beat her," said Darcy Ahner, UCSD's women's track coach. "Christine's fitness level has never been better."
At the CCAA championships, Merrill won the 400 meters and 100-meter hurdles in addition to the 400 hurdles. And she was on the winning 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams.
Today, Merrill will run the prelims of the 400 hurdles and 4x100 relay. Prelims are Friday for the 4x400 and 100 hurdles. Top-eight finishes during the prelims qualify individuals or teams into Saturday's finals.
Ahner said Merrill will not compete in the 400 meters at nationals.
"That would've been a little too much for nationals, in my opinion," Ahner said.
Merrill said she never competed in track until BCHS started the program her junior year. She graduated there in 2005.
"My parents forced me to go out. I didn't want to," she said. "They told me I was going out, and I understood that if they told me to do something, I'd do it.
"They knew what was best for me. They knew I'd enjoy it. I appreciate them for getting me into it."
Merrill said her mother, Neoufa, was a sprinter who competed in track while attending medical school in her native Sri Lanka. She added that her father Alex, who's from New York, was a pole vaulter.
Merrill specialized in the 300 hurdles in high school and reached the state meet both years but did not place.