It’s difficult for Michelle Atherley to imagine what her life would be like without track and field.
She has already become an NCAA national champion and an All-American and will compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials this weekend, but the University of Miami standout almost didn’t participant in the sport in the first place.
Atherley was already a member of the girls soccer and weightlifting teams as a sophomore at Port Charlotte High School in 2014, but she decided to test her skill on the track with some encouragement from a cousin who worked at the school.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight.
“We ran two miles on the first day and it was awful,” said Atherley, who will compete in the seven events that make up the heptathlon this Saturday and Sunday in Eugene, Oregon. “I was like, ‘I’m never doing this again.’
“Ironically, though, it spurred me into doing what I do now, which is the multi-event and the heptathlon, doing other events that I love.”
Within two years, Atherley received recruiting interest and scholarship offers from top schools around the country — but it wasn’t without hard work along the way.
Along with training and competing for the Pirates, Atherley took it upon herself to improve on her own, even if that meant driving across the state to train with her club coach, Derek Walker — who also trained her older sister, Monique Williams. Monique went on to run track for USF.
“She’s a little bit younger than Monique, who went to school down in Palm Beach,” said Walker, who coached Williams and Atherley at Fast Lane Track Club. “(Monique) would bring her little sister up with her, but finally when she went to college, she asked me to help Michelle. That’s how the relationship started.
“Once she got a car that girl would come down to train whenever she could. She’d come down on weekends, holidays, summer breaks. One time she came down on a Thursday and went back to school for Friday. That girl is devoted.”
Atherley competed in the hurdles and the high jump for the Pirates, but it didn’t take long for Walker and other coaches to realize she was capable of much more.
Soon, Atherley was not only posting better results in the hurdles and high jump, but she was also competing for Fast Lane in the triple jump, the long jump and every relay team available, while also learning other events on the side.
Though she went on to win regional titles in the high jump and hurdles — and a state championship in weightlifting — she didn’t capture a state championship with the Pirates on the track.
“I didn’t really know much before I had met him,” Atherley, 25, said of Walker. “It was the most beneficial thing to travel and train with his club, just because my high school wasn’t very experienced.
“Not a lot of people there went to college for track and field. (Walker) knew the ropes a little bit better than my high school coaches. He knew what meets I needed to compete in to be seen by college coaches.”
After navigating the college recruitment process with help from Walker, Atherley chose to commit to Auburn University.
In her first season at the collegiate level, Atherley was limited to mostly just sprints and jumps, however, and she knew she wanted more out of the sport — transferring to Miami after her freshman year.
“I’m proud that I was brave enough to transfer,” Atherley said. “That was one of the biggest decisions I’ve made in my life and it was key to bringing me where I’m at now.
“The coaches are amazing at the University of Miami and I’m very happy to be here.”
Atherley’s track career took off in Coral Gables.
She earned several honors including All-American status, the ACC Women’s Field Performer of the Year and the 2019 national championship in the pentathlon, among many others.
“She has all the tools,” Hurricanes track and field coach Amy Deem said. “She’s fast, she’s strong, she has good endurance. She can run sub-13 in the hurdles and she can run 2:10 in the 800-meter. That combination, aside from the jumping and throwing events, is rare.
“She’s an athlete who has it all, from the mental toughness to her ability to learn and get better.”
To say Atherley made the most of her time as a Hurricane would be an understatement.
A UM athlete since 2017, Atherley has extended her NCAA eligibility with both a graduate year and an extra year due to the cancellation of spring sports in 2020.
In that time she’s not only earned conference and national awards, but she’s also completed two degrees — an undergraduate degree in political science and a master’s degree in public administration — while working toward a master’s degree in international public administration, too.
“It’s always special to be an NCAA champion and have ACC championships and have the records that she’s broken, but Michelle has left a lasting impact on campus,” Deem said. “When everything happened this past year, she started a Black alliance within our student advisory committee and it’s really given a voice to our black student athletes. She’s made an impression at the University of Miami that won’t soon be forgotten.”
After wrapping up her NCAA career at the Outdoor Track and Field Championships on June 9, Atherley has remained in Oregon as she prepares for the Olympic Trials.
Though she faces steep odds of making the team — only the top three finishers in each event qualify for the Olympic team — that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have what it takes.
The heptathlon (a seven-event competition including the 100-meter hurdles, the 200-meter sprint, the 800-meter sprint, the long jump, the high jump, the shot put and the javelin throw) will begin on Saturday at 4:15 p.m. with one of Atherley’s strongest events — the hurdles — and continue on through late Sunday afternoon with the 800-meter sprint.
“Basically, I don’t know what I’m doing with my life until this weekend,” said Atherley in reference to the Olympic Trials. “I try not to put too much pressure on myself. No matter what meet I’m performing in I want to do well.
“But it’s my last race being sponsored by the University of Miami. I’m aware where I am in my career. I think I’ve been given a great opportunity being a student athlete at the University of Miami. It’s definitely changed my life. It’s given me endless opportunities, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”