By Tim Stevens, Staff WriterComment on this story Booker Nunley can look back on missing the spring track season at Garner High as a blessing -- although when he first learned he had been ruled ineligible, it didn't seem that way.
"I thought I knew what was best for me," Nunley said this week. "But God had a better plan in mind."
Nunley won the U.S. junior national championship in the 110-meters hurdles last week in Columbus, Ohio.
His time (13.408 seconds) was the fastest in the junior division in the United States this year and is believed to be the fastest in the world. His time was almost a half-second faster than his previous career best of 13.88.
The victory earned Nunley a berth on the U.S. team in the IAAF World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, in July.
"I don't know what is in Poland except for the junior worlds," Nunley said. "This is our Olympics. I am going to have a chance to compete against the best young runners in the world."
Nunley might not be packing for Poland if an administrative error had not cost him his senior season of high school track.
He had played football through his junior year and was a good enough wide receiver to receive scholarship offers from Miami and East Tennessee.
But for his senior season, he decided to concentrate on track, for which he had offers from Tennessee, N.C. State, South Carolina, Virginia Tech and others.
Nunley, who has a 3.4 overall grade-point average, took only two classes last fall. He was on track to graduate and dropped two courses he didn't need.
He passed his two courses, but N.C. High School Athletic Association rules require athletes to pass at least three courses to be eligible to compete in the following semester.
"I didn't know the rule," he said.
He found out he was ineligible days before the NCHSAA indoor championships. He had won a major invitational on Saturday but learned on Monday that his high school career was over.
"It hurt," Nunley said. "My whole track season was wiped out that quickly."
Curtis Frye, the South Carolina coach, called to say Nunley's track scholarship was not in jeopardy and encouraged him to keep practicing.
Steve McGill, a teacher at Ravenscroft and Nunley's private hurdles coach, told Nunley to pick himself up and make the best of the situation.
"We talked about how Booker now had the chance to work on his technique," McGill said. "He didn't have to worry about winning races. He could practice and get a lot better."
Hurdling is a combination of technique and speed, and McGill believes the biggest improvements come in improving technique.
McGill has worked with international champion hurdler Wayne Davis of Southeast Raleigh, former national high school hurdles champ Johnny Dutch of Clayton and the University of South Carolina and former state high school hurdles champ Gabby Mayo of Southeast Raleigh and Texas A&M.
"Look at all of the people, and we all have great technique," Nunley said. "We're not talking about jumping over sticks. We're hurdlers, and Coach McGill teaches us how to get faster."
The final piece of the puzzle came when a woman in Cary --Nunley doesn't know her or even know her name -- sent him a list of college track meets that he could enter.
Running in college meets forced Nunley to move to 42-inch tall hurdles, which are three inches taller than high school hurdles.
Nunley believes running on the higher hurdles this spring helped him improve his technique and made him stronger.
When he dropped back to the 39-inch hurdles for the junior nationals, he never felt faster.
"I guess I surprised a lot of people, but I thought I would do well," Nunley said. "I had run a 13.91 over the 42s, and Coach Fry told me that would convert to around a 13.4."
The championship race felt different than any previous race.
Nunley said he felt fast, but afterward he was sore.
"I've never been sore before or after a race," he said. "Maybe I've learned how to push myself more."
Never before had he been the focus of so much attention.
"Booker has been overshadowed by Wayne and Johnny," McGill said. "We have had some fantastic hurdlers in the area, international class runners.
Nunley said he is surprised a bit by the attention.
"I've always seen people go to the winners to congratulate them, but this time that was me," Nunley said.
email@example.com or (919) 829-8910