EUGENE, Ore. – Sabrina Southerland first got into running on the advice of her basketball coach, who watched her regularly “beat the guys” during mile warm-up runs before summer practice.
As it turned out, Southerland – the newest member of Oregon Track Club Elite – was so good at running that she quit basketball during her freshman year at Benjamin Cardoza High School in New York City.
“My (basketball) coaches were not so happy about that,” Southerland said. “But they were the ones that got me into it.”
Southerland, who was born and raised in Queens, N.Y., had a stellar high school track and field career, winning multiple big-time races. She gained national attention with her 800-meter victory in 2:03.59 at the New Balance Indoor, a meet record, and the third-fastest performance in prep history. She and her teammate, Deajah Stevens, also helped bring home the school’s first-ever Penn Relays title in the distance medley relay.
The highly recruited Southerland ended up at Georgetown, where she became an All-American, a three-time Big East champion, and a five-time NCAA qualifier, indoors and outdoors, in the 800m. She is the school record-holder in the indoor 800m and ranks second on the Hoya all-time outdoor list.
Still, after sitting out her senior season with a herniated disc in her lower back, an injury she suffered while lifting weights, she wanted more.
“I had finished my degree at Georgetown, and I felt like I had already done all I could there,” said Southerland, a 2017 graduate in Sociology and Women’s Studies. “I didn’t really progress that much while I was there and I wanted a change, a switch-up of environments … I was done with school so I thought I might as well try to fulfill my potential in track.”
Oregon was a natural choice for her final season of eligibility.
Southerland’s high school coach, Ray James, is a good friend of UO head coach Robert Johnson, and a strong relationship had already been established with the recruiting of such NYC prep standouts as Stevens and Claudia Francis.
Southerland got off to a slow start at Oregon.
After running just one 800m race during the indoor season, she barely qualified for the 2018 NCAA Indoor Championships – coming in as the 16th and final competitor. In her three previous trips to the NCAA Indoor meet for Georgetown, Southerland was ranked ninth, seventh and second among the 800m entrants.
“It was pretty close,” she said. “I was literally the last one in, so that was really scary.”
Her first goal was to make the final, something she had never achieved as a collegiate athlete.
“In all my years at Georgetown, I always made it to NCAAs, but never made it to finals, which was really annoying,” she said.
Southerland checked that box with an “easy” 2:03 in the prelims, which gave her confidence for the final. She then became the fourth Duck in the past five seasons to win a national indoor 800m title with a lifetime best of 2:01.55, joining Raevyn Rogers (2016, ’17) and Laura Roesler (2014).
“When it was time to go, I went, and I wasn’t going to give it up,” Southerland said. “I felt good, but I was still stressed, because I was thinking about the 4x400m relay.”
Outdoors, Southerland lowered her 800m PR to 2:00.72 at the NCAA West Preliminary Round. At the NCAA Championships at historic Hayward Field, she looked strong in the prelims, placing second at 2:02.96, but a sinus infection hindered her performance in the final, and she settled for seventh place at 2:06.99.
She quickly regrouped to make her first USA final in Des Moines, ultimately placing eighth at 2:01.62. At that point, Southerland knew she wasn’t finished with track, and after a few months of discussion, she signed on with OTC Elite. She will also earn her master’s degree at Oregon this June in Non-Profit Management with a concentration in Strategic Communications.
Southerland, 22, joins a high-powered women’s 800m group at OTC Elite, including second-year pro Hanna Green, and Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, the reigning two-time World Indoor champion and two-time Olympian.
“Running professionally has always been a goal of mine,” Southerland said. “But it didn’t become a reality until I got to Oregon … it’s only my fourth week of training, but things are going really well. Coach Row is a great coach, I’m working out with Hanna right now, and I’m excited to meet Francine when she gets here. That was definitely part of the appeal.”
And, despite her NYC roots, she is finally adjusting to the slower pace of the Pacific Northwest.
“Eugene really grew on me,” Southerland said. “At first, I hated it, only because I was so used to the big city. It took a lot of adjustment, but now, I really like it. My attitude has completely changed.”