Not even Mother Nature could do anything to stop College of San Mateo’s “Sophie” spectacular.
CSM freshman Yan-Jun “Sophie” Liao finished off the program’s greatest season-long sprinting performance in generations Saturday as the native of Chinese Taipei won two gold medals at the California Community College State Championships on her home course at College Heights Stadium.
With intermittent rain showers dampening the course, Liao soldiered through, posting convincing wins in each the women’s 100 and 200 meters.
“I don’t usually like running in the rain,” Liao said. “But I think this was our advantage. So, I appreciate that.”
Liao spent most of her life running in the hot and humid conditions of Taipei City, Chinese Tapei until she relocated to Foster City and enrolled at CSM this semester. The freshman has acclimated in a hurry. And while the elements perhaps prevented her from setting a new program record in her signature event, the 100-meter dash, she still managed to leave the rest of the state community college field in the dust.
In the 100, she took gold with a time of 11.65 seconds, with Kierra King of Cerritos taking second in 11.91. Liao’s time was one one-hundredth of a second off her personal record, and two one-hundredths off the program record of 11.63 set by Ronda Robinson in 1983.
“You train for it, you plan for it, you see it, you believe it; and then it happens and you’re fired up and excited,” CSM head coach Kajari Burns said. “… She had game competition in the Cerritos girls. We’ve been looking to compete against them all year to be pushed. She was finally pushed and she hit her season best right in time. So, as a coach, I’m ecstatic.”
Liao doubled up in the 200, running away from the pack with a time of 24.64. The next five placers were separated by .39 seconds — King took second in 25.10; Riverside’s Alana Wilson took sixth in 25.49 — in a smaller margin than Liao left between her and second place.
“That was shocking too,” Burns said. “Again, we expected to get pressed. We expected those girls to be right on her shoulder. And Sophie really handled business today. She stepped up big time.”
With a sprinter’s form to marvel at, Liao looked as though she was still accelerating when she crossed the finish line in the 200. CSM freshman Anna Chuakay, a freshman out of Aragon who runs on the women’s relay teams with Liao, noted Liao’s toe drag — a technique of keeping one’s feet as close to the ground as possible to create more drive off the back leg — sets her apart.
“She has such a strong, explosive finish,” Chuakay said, “And I think in the middle of each race, you can already see that she’s way behind everyone. And she keeps that on for the whole race.”
It has been a swift ascent this year with Liao returning to action in January after a two-month layoff from running. She brought not just a next-level work ethic to the CSM track every day, but also helped build the women’s relay team after the program did not field a relay team last season.
“In the beginning of the season … we were such a small group compared to normal athletics,” Chuakay said. “Just her on the team, I think it gave us all confidence in ourselves. Her, just every day at practice, she gives a lot of energy and strength to us.”
CSM qualified for the state finals in the women’s 4x400 relay, settling for ninth place as Liao, Chuakay, Charisse Harper-Jones and Yashvee Patel posted a time of 4:11.84; Riverside took gold in the event at 3:53.83. The objective for CSM, Burns said, was for Liao to run in four events Saturday, but the women’s 4x100 relay team did not qualify for the finals.
Sacramento City sophomore Daryia Greene — who medaled in four events, including a gold medal in the women’s 400 — has as good a perspective as any as to Liao’s improvement this season. Early in the season, Greene topped Liao in the 200. The difference in Saturday’s performance was Liao’s early acceleration around the curve.
“She breaks people easy on the curve and kind of pulls through for the rest,” Greene said.
And once Liao has a lead going into the straightaway — where she has an advantage as a natural 100 runner — good luck catching her.
“She just really drives every single race I have with her,” Greene said. “She gets out fast. She’s just amazing.”
While California community colleges don’t compete with the rest of the nation, Burns said Liao is already in the top tier not just in terms of JCs, but rated her in the middle to bottom end of the top tier of all collegiate runners in the nation.
“California state champions, it’s a big deal,” Burns said. “We’re a big state, we have … a lot of people competing in track and field in our state, and we typically produce some of the fastest times in the nation. So, when you come out of this state as a champion, especially in the short sprints, everybody’s going to notice that. That’s a big deal. It’s a huge deal.”
Burns said Liao is still undecided about returning to CSM for her sophomore year.
“It’s still up in the air,” Burns said. “She’s got a lot of options. As soon as the races were done, I had people asking me about her immediately, enquiring about her. She’s going to weigh her options, but I do think we have a good chance of getting her back next year.”
Liao was warm to the idea of taking one more tour of the community college circuit before inevitably transferring to a Division I program.
“I think I’ll probably stay here for another year,” Liao said. “Because I just came to America in January and I think I need more time to adjust everything. I don’t want to rush to a four-year university.”
Livai takes gold in javelin
Liao wasn’t CSM’s only state gold medalist.
Sophomore thrower Taini Livai rose to the top of the podium in the women’s javelin throw Friday. The Mills graduate was the only competitor to throw over 40 meters, going for a best distance of 40.9 meters. Livai also placed 12th in the shot put at 10.62 meters.
CSM freshman Teme Fanguna (Mercy-Burlingame) reached the podium in the shot put, taking fifth with a distance of 11.7. Riverside’s Angelique Hudson took told at 13.96. Fanguna also took 12th in the women’s javelin at 25.59.
In the men’s javelin, CSM freshman Quincy Daniels (Serra) took sixth place with a throw of 51.85.
In the men’s shot put, CSM freshman Eiljah Folau (Serra) took ninth with a throw of 14 meters flat.