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Kayla Parker (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kayla Parker (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kayla Parker's career at Kentucky changed on a team bus trip in Nebraska in February of last year.

The UK track and field team was just a few months into head coach Edrick Floreal's first year in charge of the program and much of the team had not yet adjusted to the concepts the new staff was trying to instill.

Parker -- who experienced mixed results on the track in her first two years in Lexington and struggled to find a signature event, even trying her hand in the grueling pentathlon and heptathlon -- for her part was one of the first Wildcats to buy into the novel "Floreal" ethos.

With the Wildcats riding back from Nebraska's indoor track after a meet performance below the team's expectations, certain team members were acting as though they weren't upset about the lackluster results.

Parker, knowing the coaching staff would not take kindly to seeing the team in such good spirits after competing so poorly, stood up in front of her teammates to voice her disapproval.

"It seemed like people didn't care, and it kind of frustrated me," Parker said. "People were nonchalant. We just lost, why are you still laughing and joking? That was when I stood up and said something. Usually I talk to people individually, but that day was different. I can't repeat what I said on the bus, but I think the team got the message."

Word of Parker's talk with the team certainly got around and her head coach took notice, seeing the intervention as an initial turning point in the UK track and field culture.

"If we're going to win anything as a team the athletes have to be the ones who take ownership," Floreal said. "Kayla was one of the first people to do that. She took ownership on that bus. I was riding separate from the team, but later I heard Kayla had said something to the team and some team members were worried at how much the meet had affected her.

"My reaction was the opposite; I thought, this is perfect. We're starting to get people who think of it as 'my team.' She was making sure there was accountability."

Parker's sense of accountability translated into results shortly after her speech, as she began running head-turning times in the 100-meter hurdles.

Whereas in 2012, she failed to even make the final at the Southeastern Conference Championships, she finished fourth overall in 2013. Then she qualified for the NCAA Championships and broke a decade-old school record.

She has continued to wow early this season as Parker ran the nation's second-fastest 60-meter hurdles time last month, 8.24, breaking another school record in the process.

Parker attributes her success to buying into her coach's philosophies and moreover, holding herself accountable to the same standards she asks of her teammates.

The team's new standards were difficult to adjust to at first, and could explain why it took until the 2013 outdoor season before the hard work really started to pay off.

And the team has bought in too. Led by Parker, the UK women's team is ranked No. 6 in the preseason poll, released Monday.

"It was just too easy not to do everything in your power to get better before," Parker said. "Now we know the coaches' expectations are higher, and in turn our teammates expect more of each other too. You notice the difference in training, but also off the track. Everyone is just committed to the cause."

Parker led the way in changing her attitude toward the sport and competition. Kentucky's recent influx of talent into the program has only hastened the rest of the team's shift in outlook.

UK's ascent to national contender status, due in large part to Parker's emergence and a 2013 recruiting class ranked No. 5 nationally by "Track and Field News," has brought a level of competition to practice sessions previously unseen.

Parker certainly was challenged in training by teammates like transfer Kendra Harrison -- a seven-time All-American and six-time Atlantic Coast Conference Champion -- which seems to have translated into results given her top-class start to the season.

"As coaches we try to explain to the kids the things they need to do to be successful, but you can never fully impart that wisdom just by talking," Floreal said. "When you have members of the team that have been to the highest level the rest of the team gets a glimpse and that work ethic rubs off. That is important as you try to build a winning culture.

Like her coach, Parker knows preseason rankings do not make a successful year a given. Plenty of work -- as well as speeches to the team, should they be necessary -- remains.

"It's just the beginning," said Floreal of the strides his team has made in the past year, largely because of the steps Parker and other have taken to improve. "We're not there yet. Things like preseason rankings are small steps, but we have to put in the work to perform when in counts."

An initial test of how the many dividends the the team's hard work will yield comes this weekend when UK hosts the Kentucky Invitational at the Nutter Field House.

Video: Press Whelan's Hall of Fame speech

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Video: Chelsea Oswald's SEC PSA

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This spring, Chelsea Oswald of UK track and field/cross country won the Southeastern Conference's prestigious H. Boyd McWhorter Scholarship for her outstanding academic record. Now, she's featured in a public service announcement you'll likely be seeing often as you watch SEC football games this fall. Take a look.


Arantxa King trains as coach Edrick Floreal looks on. (Jake Most, UK Athletics) Arantxa King trains as coach Edrick Floreal looks on. (Jake Most, UK Athletics)
Even before the 2013 fall collegiate athletics season gets under way later this month, the wait is over for Kentucky fans ready for live sports action featuring Wildcats. The IAAF World Championships begin in the Russian capital on Saturday and UK will be well represented.

Current volunteer assistant coach and two-time Olympian Arantxa King will jump among the world's best athletes inside Luzhniki Stadium. In addition to King, three former Wildcats are also entered in the biennial track and field meet.

King will jump in Group B of the qualifying round, which gets begins at 11:20 a.m. ET. Select events will likely be broadcast on a delayed basis on NBC from 3:30 to 5 p.m.

King, a Stanford alumna who serves as a volunteer assistant coach at UK working with the jumps and sprints groups, will compete for Bermuda. She is coached by UK head coach Edrick Floreal, himself a former Olympian and World Championships competitor.

King boasts a broad array of major championship experience having competed in the past two Olympic Games despite just having finished her decorated NCAA career in 2012. 

She missed the 2012 Olympic long jump final last year in London by one spot and less than a centimeter on a tiebreaking procedure. King's top mark from three qualifying round attempts of 6.4 meters (just under 21 feet) tied her with Veronika Shutkova for the 12th and final spot in the final, but the Belarusian's second-best mark of 6.21 was 0.01 centimeters better than Kings'. 

King is coming off a silver medal at the 2013 Central America and Caribbean [CAC] Championships in Mexico last month. King owns an all-time personal-best long jump of 6.57m and a wind-legal best of 6.5m. Her 2013 seasonal-best is 6.45m.

The Boston area native comes from a family of top-class athletes. King's father Adrian is one of the best cricket players in Bermuda history. He represented the Bermuda national team as its top fast bowler and Arantxa's mother Branwen Smith-King also represented her country as a Pan-Am games level thrower.

Should King advance, the women's long jump world championship final is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 11 at 11 a.m. 

Former Wildcats Descend on Moscow

A number of former Wildcat athletes will also be competing over the course of the World Championships, which run from August 10-18.

Mikel Thomas, who won the Trinidad and Tobago National Championship in June, will represent his nation in the 110m hurdles. Thomas' fellow former Wildcat and countryman Rondel Sorrillo will also represent T&T in the 100m and 4x100m relay.

Jenna Martin will compete for Canada as part of the 4x400m relay pool. Martin was slowed by a hip injury for much of the season and did not qualify for Canada in the 400m.

Keith Hayes: Hurdling into UK history

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hayesflo.jpgKeith Hayes successfully battled through multiple injuries en route to one of the best seasons in UK track and field history, but a loving threat from an Olympic Medalist might have been the biggest reason he was so successful the past few weeks.

Following a loss in confidence resulting from a hamstring injury at the Southeastern Conference Championships, Hayes got a phone call from an even more decorated athlete: the 1992 Olympic Silver Medalist in the 100-meter hurdles. That former world-class hurdler also happened to be the wife of Hayes' head coach, LaVonna Floreal.

That drop in self-belief was quickly dispensed with after Hayes received a stern talking-to, which included that threat.

The sprint hurdler sent off a string of tweets shortly after he suffered the injury expressing disappointment about missing two SEC finals and doubting his prospects for recovering in time for the NCAA Outdoor Championships, which were just two weeks away.

Soon after seeing those tweets LaVonna Floreal gave Hayes a call. 

"After the setback at SECs we had a good talk and to be honest my wife actually called him," UK coach Edrick Floreal said. "She told him, 'I'm an Olympic Silver Medalist and if you ever do that again I will personally kick your butt. You don't that, I don't care if your leg is broken and blood is pouring out of it.' "

That conversation was apparently just what Hayes needed as the senior ended up clocking a season-best time in one of track and field's most grueling events, the 400m hurdles, just 11 days later. He then qualified for the NCAA Semifinals with another season-best time in the 110m hurdles two days after that.

Hayes would go on to reach his first NCAA Outdoor Championship Final in the 110m hurdles where he finished fourth, but his road to All-America status was filled with even higher obstacles than the 42-inch barriers on the track.

Indeed Hayes enjoyed perhaps the best hurdles season, and by extension career, in UK track and field history in 2013. He was All-American in the 60m hurdles indoors setting the school record in the process before he broke the UK 110m hurdles record at the NCAA Championships.

Hayes lowered that all-conditions record to 13.30 seconds last weekend at the United States Track and Field Championships where he ran alongside the world-record holder and 2012 Olympic Gold and Silver Medalists, among others.

Performing on the biggest stage

After what Hayes himself would admit was a difficult indoor season, he came through when the pressure was greatest time and again.
Keith Hayes at the NCAA Championships (Spencer Allen, Sports Image Wire)

Entering the last weekend of the indoor season Hayes had yet to produce one of the national top-16 times required to earn a spot at the NCAA Championships in the 60m hurdles. Yet Hayes was undeterred competing with one last chance to qualify for NCAAs.

He showed as much when he broke two-time Olympian Mikel Thomas' 60m hurdles record during the semifinal heat to post the nation's No. 9 time and make the NCAA Indoor Championship field. 

At NCAAs, Hayes lowered his personal-best time to 7.69 in the semifinal and then picked up First-Team All-America status in the final.

He also displayed just how much doing well for the team meant to him as he was the UK men's team's only participant at the NCAA Indoor Championships. He ensured the Wildcats didn't get shut out at the National Championships with a top-eight finish to get UK on the team scoreboard.

Indeed Hayes' indoor performance prompted his head coach to call him a "one-man team" in a plea for more Wildcats to perform at the NCAA Championship level.

Producing top performances on the biggest stage - in fact record-breaking ones - when the pressure was greatest became a trend for Hayes.

"The cool thing about Keith is the more the tension rises the more he focuses," Floreal said. "Some people lose sight of what's important when the tension rises. That's the difference between the great ones and the other ones. In the heat of the moment they still stay true to the process. In the end if they can just repeat to themselves the things they've done and how confident and ready they are they'll be fine."

He went on to break another of Thomas' school records, this time outdoors in the 110m hurdles, as he ran 13.32 to reach the NCAA Championship final. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that Hayes had run season-best times in two events at the NCAA Preliminary Rounds, less than two weeks after suffering an injury that often lingers with sprinters for weeks if not months.

"Breaking Mikel's records meant a lot to me because I know what an impressive career he has had," Hayes said. "I really enjoyed training with him during my first season at UK. He texted me congratulations after I got the 60m hurdles record. We still have a great relationship. It means a lot when you get a record that belonged to someone who has been to two Olympic Games."

Reaching new heights under Floreal

While Hayes had enjoyed an impressive career before his senior season - he was a three-time All-American going into 2013 - he reached a new level of success in Floreal's first year at the helm of the UK program.

Hayes drastically improved in 2013, but making the adjustment to a new coach didn't happen overnight. 

"I had to buy in," Hayes said. "I didn't do it smoothly at first because I second-guessed myself coming off injury having redshirted last year on my mind, but it came together."

When Floreal began coaching Hayes, the first step was finding the best way to communicate with one of the team's only athletes with All-America credentials. In Hayes, Floreal inherited an accomplished athlete coming off a foot injury that kept him out for the entire 2012 season.

Floreal is happy to admit that one of the biggest challenges in coaching hurdlers is striking the right balance between working on technical race elements and encouraging athletes to relax so they don't stress about executing the technical aspects of a race.

Striking the right chord in Hayes' training proved to be a unique challenge for the UK coach.

"There are some adjustments you have to make," Floreal said. "The hurdles are so complicated that you have to make some changes. Some athletes require the information, but others require the confidence and the information is not that important.

"When you come in and look at what he's accomplished you're like that guy needs a lot of information, we've got to get him technically sound. Then we realized we just needed to give him confidence and when we did that you started to see the results."

Perhaps the greatest example of Floreal's coaching choice paying off was Hayes' school record during the final regular-season meet indoors.

Floreal in fact did not travel with Hayes to Virginia Tech, instead having assistant coach Roderick Dotts make the trip alongside the veteran hurdler.

"It was one of those things where me and Coach Flo had a conversation and decided I may have been struggling because I was overthinking it," Hayes said. "I needed to be more comfortable. He sent Coach Dotts with me to chill and have fun with it. We did everything under the sun to try not to think about that race."

While Floreal stayed in Lexington as his hurdler was off getting ready to run a personal-best time and book a spot in the NCAA Championship field, the two did remain in contact.

"By that point in the season he just had to figure it out for himself," Floreal said about his leap of faith. "We texted back and forth that whole day where he'd tell me he just finished his warm-up, how he was feeling good and I just said 'great.' There was nothing I could do except nod my head. 

"If I would've gone with him to that last-chance meet I would have just been a crutch. My not being there helped him kind of figure things out."

Hayes earned a great deal of his coach's trust that weekend in Blacksburg, and he cashed it in at the Heart of the Bluegrass Classic, Kentucky's first home outdoor meet since 1997.

On top of being the first outdoor competition in Lexington in 16 years, the UK track and field program also celebrated Senior Day for the first time ever.

Given the novelty of the day, Hayes wanted to perform for the home fans as much as he could. As such, he asked Floreal to enter him in four events, despite the fact that one of the season's biggest meets, the Penn Relays, was just a week away.    

That level of trust has certainly paid off in 2013.

"It's become more of a father-son relationship," Hayes said. "He has expectations of me, but he doesn't always have to tell me. He will tell me 'you know what to do, right?' That comes with being a senior. 

"It's really good to know when he's confident in me. Before he used to be very technical with me, but he realized I think a lot when I'm training and racing. I've been running four events every weekend and I like it. I love to compete especially when I can hear my teammates cheering me on."

Hurdles along the journey

Despite all his success in 2013, many goals remain unmet.

By all accounts - in terms of reaching goals - he came up just short of a major one this past weekend at the USA Championships where he placed 16th overall in arguably the world's deepest National Championship fields.

The senior finished second in his USA Championship prelim heat, ahead of the aforementioned defending World Champion and 2012 Olympic Silver Medalist Jason Richardson to reach the semifinal as the fifth-fastest qualifier.

Races with U.S. World Championship team berths on the line are not decided in the prelims, however. Hayes learned that the hard way at his first major race competing head-to-head with world-class professionals.

He was unluckily drawn into a stacked semifinal heat, which featured Richardson, World Record-holder and reigning Olympic Gold Medalist Aries Merritt and former American Record-Holder David Oliver.

Hayes got out of the blocks about as well as any of the top professionals and was right there with all three midway through the semifinal race before he began hitting hurdles, and eventually did not finish.

The disappointing result left the Wildcat alumnus looking for more in future races and seasons.

Despite the tough end to his UK career, LaVonna Floreal offered up some more advice at the first sign of Hayes venting via Twitter on Sunday evening. Floreal (@SilverMedal2) told her talented protégé (@HurdlingYoMamma) he was just beginning his "hurdling" journey. 

Indeed the next step in that journey remains to be taken, but given the trajectory of his career in recent months the future certainly looks bright.

Video: Davis, McWhorter winners Moir, Oswald

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Last week in Sandestin, Fla., UK's Megan Moir (women's golf) and Chelsea Oswald (track and field/cross country) were recognized at the Southeastern Conference's Spring Meetings.The two videos below were shown before Moir accepted the SEC's Brad Davis SEC Female Community Service Leader of the Year and H. Boyd McWhorter Scholar-Athlete of the Year awards. Take a look.

Moir



Oswald


Senior Luis Orta will compete in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at nationals in Eugene, Ore., beginning Wednesday. Senior Luis Orta will compete in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at nationals in Eugene, Ore., beginning Wednesday. (UK Athletics)
Over the last five years, distance runner Luis Orta has been a mainstay for the Kentucky track and field team. Orta, a senior, will compete in his final event this week for the Wildcats with a chance to leave one final mark.

Orta is going to do everything in his power to advance to the finals and go out with a bang this week. No matter what, he knows he has laid everything on the line every day and has given his best effort day in and day out. He couldn't ask for anything more.

"Whatever happens if I make it to the final or break the school record again or not I will be very pleased with my college career," Orta said. "It's been five beautiful years. I've met awesome people and have had incredible experiences here. I wouldn't choose another school if I could go back, UK has been awesome to me and I'm happy with whatever happens this weekend."

Kentucky travels to Eugene, Ore., this week to compete in the NCAA Outdoor Championships. UK, which had just three athletes compete in last season's nationals, will send 10 this year, including Orta.

The Caracas, Venezuela native will race in a 3,000-meter steeplechase semifinal on Wednesday at 9:45 p.m. ET. The semifinals consist of two 12-person races with the top-five finishers from each advancing to the final, along with the next four fastest times. The 14-athlete final will take place on Friday at 8:40 p.m.

Orta qualified for nationals by breaking the school record in the steeplechase at the NCAA East Preliminary Championship. He crossed the finish line with a time of 8:42.22, good enough for seventh place in the event and an automatic bid to Eugene.

With the days dwindling in his illustrious UK career, Orta is after that record once more.

"I want to try to break the record again and try to run under 8:40 and make it to the final," Orta said. "If I am able to do that then hopefully I can run in the low 8:30s in the final."

In his first season at UK, Orta broke the freshman school record in the steeplechase at the Southeastern Conference Championships with a time of 8:52.39. After finally reaching his goal at regionals by surpassing the overall school record, he had assistant coach Hakon DeVries go over and double-check the final result following the race to ensure the time was correct. From there, Orta has turned to Jason Dunn - the coach with whom he's primarily worked all season - to help him make a run at breaking the record again.

Orta has been a strong distance runner for UK in several events, but the steeplechase is his best. He finished second at SECs as a freshman, sophomore and junior and has qualified for nationals for the second consecutive year.

He finished 22nd at nationals last year, falling short of the finals. Orta will be the first to say he didn't have a good race last season. He was nervous and just wasn't comfortable during the event - something any coach will tell you is very common amongst first-time competitors at nationals. This week could prove to be different as the new coaches have implemented different training methods and, having already competed in one national competition, he thinks he will be more at ease when he steps up to the starting line.

"The training has been so much different," Orta said. "We are actually training for the steeplechase whereas last year was more of a middle-distance type of training. I've been hurdling a lot and working on my mobility and doing a lot of workouts in hurdles and over the water jumps which is important. I think I'm more comfortable when I'm racing which helps a lot."

With 10 athletes making the trip northwest, Kentucky has improved immensely from last season. With so many teammates with him on the trip, Orta hopes to draw inspiration from his fellow Wildcats.

"If they do good I feel like I have to do something good," Orta said. "I don't want to go home and feel like I didn't do as good as them. It definitely helps to see my teammates do well because it helps me get focused for the race."

In just one year, head coach Edrick Floreal has helped UK's track and field program make remarkable strides. Not only are the Cats sending additional athletes to nationals this year, but the team showed progress with its finish at the SEC meet. The men and women each finished seventh at the conference championships, jumping several spots from last season's performance.

There is no doubt in Orta's mind that Floreal is taking the program in the right direction and UK will be among the elite in the coming years. Even though he will no longer be competing as a collegian as the program develops, Orta has played a role in building a foundation that will allow that to happen.

"With Coach Floreal, it's different. He wants to move this program forward and he's working for it right now," Orta said. "I'm sure it's going to get better and better and in four years from now or even less than that. We are definitely going to be a top-five program in the nation. No doubt in my mind it's going to improve a lot."

Orta is currently working on a master's degree in sports leadership. After one more year of school, he would like to stay involved in sports once he's done running for UK and wants to work in the administrative side of sports.

However, he will not give up on his true love of running. Orta will continue training and hopes to try to make it to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the 2016 Olympics, while also competing in marathons along the way.

He attributes much of his success to his time at UK and says he would not be the man he is today had he not attended school at Kentucky.

"I think this has prepared me for life because it shows you that if you work hard for something then you are eventually going to get it if you really want something and you work really hard for it," Orta said. "It teaches you that life is not easy and there are going to be people that are faster than you and there is nothing you can do about it, but keep trying and keep going. It's going to be hard to train, going to school and working but life is hard you have to man up and do it."

Last season, three UK student-athletes qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships. This year, 10 are in Eugene, Ore., to participate in college track and field's top event.

How's that for improvement under first-year head coach Edrick Floreal?

The meet lasts from Wednesday until Saturday and four Wildcats - Bradley Szypka, Chelsea Oswald, Keilah Tyson and Luis Orta - will compete today. Pac-12.com will broadcast all of Wednesday's events from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET, while ESPN3.com and ESPNU will show much of the competition on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For complete broadcast information and a meet schedule, check out the release on UKathletics.com.

Cory Weigel will have a story on Orta's final collegiate meet later, but in the meantime here are a few links to stories written this week about UK track and field's trip northwest.

UK track and field program on the rise after Floreal's first season as head coach (Jon Hale, KyForward.com)

Six men -- Andrew Evans (discus), Raymond Dykstra (javelin), Bradley Szypka (shot put), Luis Orta (3,000-meter steeplechase), Matt Hillenbrand (1,500 meters) and Keith Hayes (110-meter hurdles) -- will participate in the NCAA Championships for UK this week. They will be joined by UK women Chelsea Oswald (5,000 meters and 10,000 meters), Rebecca Famurewa (discus), Keilah Tyson (100 meters) and Kayla Parker (100-meter hurdles).

One year after sending just three athletes to the NCAA National Championships, UK team members credit the new coaching staff for much of the improvement.

"It's completely different," Orta said. "Now it's all about winning, performing well, doing good, running fast, running more. You can see the change now. We're all doing way better than last year. We're doing more miles, we're working harder, we're training twice a day and stuff like that, things that we were not doing last year."

Chelsea Oswald aiming high again at NCAA track meet (Leigh Dannhauser, Lexington Herald-Leader)

This week marks Oswald's first time at the outdoor national meet but she is not new to the national stage. She is a three-time All-American in cross country and indoor track and field.

Both she and Floreal have said that the goal is for her to finish in the top eight in both of her events. But Oswald has set her goals even higher.

"I'm hoping I can get a qualifying time for (the USA National Championships)," Oswald said. She does not think that her current times are fast enough to gain entry into the meet in either event.

10 Kentucky Wildcats heading to NCAA track championship (Kyle Tucker, Louisville Courier-Journal)

Still, in Year One under Floreal, the Wildcats have doubled their number of NCAA-qualifying men (six) and gone from no female qualifiers to four, including junior Chelsea Oswald, who won the Southeastern Conference 10,000 meters in league-record time. She qualified for nationals in that and the 5,000 and is ranked top 16 among the 24 qualifiers in both events.

UK has top-16 athletes in seven events: Rebecca Famurewa (No. 3 in women's discus), Andrew Evans (No. 5 in men's discus), Oswald (No. 10 in 5,000, No. 16 in 10,000), Raymond Dykstra (No. 12 in men's javelin), Keith Hayes (No. 13 in men's 100 hurdles) and Luis Orta (No. 14 in men's steeplechase). At the NCAA Championships, the top eight finishers in each event are first-team All-Americans, and the next eight earn second-team honors.

"With the new coaches, everything is different now," Orta said. "Now we're there to win, to get All-American, to make it to the finals. ... You can see the change now. We're all doing way better than last year. We're doing more miles, we're working harder, we're training twice a day, things we were not doing last year."

Photo gallery: Cats train in Eugene

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