On Feb. 7 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Shawnti Jackson, the breakout sprint star of the high school indoor season, was introduced to the heightened world of professional track and field.
It would be the meet that would come to define her virtuostic season.
Given a chance to debut in a professional race for the first time in her young career, the 15-year-old teenager from Raleigh, North Carolina was eager to showcase her ability under the bright lights and glare of a national television audience at the American Track League.
Then she walked to the line of the 60 meter start, where she received her ‘Welcome to The Big Show’ moment.
“At my level, sometimes you have competitors who say good luck and stuff,” Shawnti said of the experience.
“This time, they didn’t say anything at all. It was strictly business.”
And yet, while the reality wasn’t exactly what the Cardinal Gibbons (NC) High School sophomore was expecting, it also wasn’t entirely surprising.
Her father, the Olympic medalist Bershawn Jackson, 37, had often told her that no one was going to give her anything, much less a fast time and a big win at a professional meet.
Maybe she felt those words in that moment, standing there, the tension building.
“You have grown people around you,” she said. “Then the music and everything just cuts off. And then you have the adrenaline.”
In a perfect world, Shawnti’s debut would have seen the teenager win the heat and run the fastest time in the world. But sometimes, learning lessons are more useful. She actually wound up finishing one placement shy of qualification for the finals.
Still, Bershawn was thrilled. Whether his daughter made the final or not, she had just run a personal record time of 7.31 seconds.
“I’m there thinking to myself, ‘Shawnti, you just ran a PR,’” he said.
There were more important things ahead, anyway.
His daughter was about to double back in the 200 meter final over the ensuing 90 minutes. So even if she had made the finals, she would have had to race twice over a nearly 30-minute period. It felt like a smart decision to move on.
Then, fate decided for the both of them.
Bershawn’s close friend, the agent Paul Doyle — whose agency, Doyle Management Group, was in charge of meet operations — told him a lane opened for the teenager after a fan vote.
“Do you want her to run?” Doyle asked.
For a second, the highly experienced father considered the possibility. And then he turned to his daughter.
“‘Daddy, I want to run.’”
The story from there, while less dramatic, was significant. While Jackson did not win, few would have argued that was even important.
In the process of competing with some of the nation’s fastest women at 60 meters, Shawnti ran a new U.S. No. 1 high school time, a sophomore national class record and top 50 world indoor effort of 7.24 seconds, finishing seventh overall in the 60 meter final.
It was tied for the fourth-best effort in high school history, too.
Just 30 minutes later, Shawnti wiped that result off and did one better, scoring a fourth-place finish at 200 meters, securing another U.S. No. 1 high school time and sophomore national class record of 23.23 seconds.
That effort also placed her among the top 25 performances in the world, was a new World 15-age-group best and was tied for the fourth-best performance in high school history.
No one was happier than Bershawn.
“I’m smiling inside,” he said. “My baby is grown up.”
Those who know Bershawn as a professional athlete often make connections between his past and his children’s future.
It’s impossible not to see them — he has two other children: Shari, 11, and BJ, 9 —in him.
Bershawn is a four-time World Championship medalist, having won an individual outdoor gold in the 400 meter hurdles in 2005, just months after Shawnti was first born.
He won bronze in the same event three years later at the Olympic Games in Beijing, with Shawnti and his wife Shannon witnessing that feat from the stands at just 3 years of age.
Bershawn largely beat out the odds, leaving the Section 8 projects of Miami as an undersized sprint hurdler with a chip on his shoulder. He continued to overcome those odds as he transferred colleges, became professional, and beat out bigger and seemingly better hurdlers with step-counts shorter than his for 400 meters.
Ultimately, nobody ever out-ran Bershawn’s heart.
And now, 15 years later, after the glory has faded and his athletic retirement opened the door for other endeavors -- he’s a sports agent now -- Bershawn has begun picking up different hats. Coaching his children has become his passion.
What he sees now is pretty clear: His children show that same competitive desire.
He can’t help but see his own identity in Shawnti. She was born six days before his own birthday, May 8, and her name is an extension of his own, with the ‘Ti’ representing a female twist on the surname. Both Bershawn and Shannon thought it felt right.
Athletically, their DNA intertwine on the oval.
Shawnti, for instance, carries the same low center of gravity that her father had. There’s the lean which often looks like she’s on the verge of tipping over.
But of course, there’s a lot more to appearances. Shawnti attacks the ground with force you can’t teach and with power most can’t create. Most competitors are downright envious of it.
“Her style, it’s just like her dad’s,” Run U Xpress coach Katina Davis said of Shawnti. “You look at them, and her form is a little better than his, but for the most part her style of running is still pretty much the same.
While those physical connections are tangible and can be traced to Bershawn’s former successes, his young daughter is forging her own identity, too.
Beyond the physical manifestations and the race wins and fast times, she’s discovering herself on the track in her own way.
“It’s scary to see in my kids,” Bershawn said. “The same kind of form and mindset and approach. I’m like, ‘Wow.’”
While Shawnti picks up win after win, perhaps more important are the losses, as they help her cope with her competitive instincts and teach her how to rebound from tough moments.
“He tries to help me because he’s been through it,” Shawnti said of her father. “He wants me to be a better athlete based on his mistakes and flaws.”
Let’s go back to 2020.
While Shawnti’s performances in 2021 have truly been stunning, that isn’t to say her her breakthrough has been a complete surprise.
A year ago, she led the nation in the 55m (6.87) and was ranked U.S. No. 5 in the 60m. A year ago, she didnt’ even run the 200 meters indoors. Instead, she featured in the 300m, where she ran in one of the season’s best races.
That January, she was noticeably sandwiched between Athing Mu, Kayla Davis and Kimberly Harris during an incredible 300 meter race at The VA Showcase. Overshadowed by the star power in front of her in Heat 2, she was third in 38.02 seconds -- she was fifth overall in the 300m field that weekend.
Frankly, it wasn’t a bad result. Her time finished the year at U.S. No. 6 and was No. 2 for the freshman class.
But in a lot of ways, her performance was overlooked by the rest.
At the time, Bershawn, the coach, was kicking himself. He had no idea how big the meet was, how much other athletes had prepared to hit mid-season form in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Shawnti, who also finished second in the 60m, was just opening up.
“We took her straight from school and traveled up to Virginia,” Bershawn said, a bit regretfully. “I didn’t understand just how many people got really ready for that.”
Those losses aside, though, Shawnti would go on to confidently win North Carolina Indoor titles in the 55m and 300m.
Her bounce-back at state, which saw her run a Class 4A best of 6.91 seconds and 39.01 in the 300m, were appropriately top-class results, just shades off her personal best marks.
While those performances could have been the preamble to outdoor excellence, they ended up falling out of orbit, as COVID-19 upended the ensuing spring and summer.
Perhaps a full year of competitive silence proved to be a difference maker.
Two days into January, just a few weeks into her sophomore season, Shawnti ripped through the Virginia Beach Sports Center track to claim the season’s first sub-24 second 200 meter run, hitting 23.89 seconds on the clock at the Grant Holloway Invitational.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” she said of claiming her first indoor sub-24. “I almost cried when I saw 23. I was so happy and I trained so hard for it.”
It seemed like her time.
Then came more adversity a few weeks later.
Jackson stepped to the line at The VA Showcase in January as one of the pre-race favorites in the 60m.
The sophomore would ultimately be out-leaned at the line by St. Dominic Savio Catholic’s Autumn Wilson, who ran 6.81 to Shawnti’s 6.84.
Then, more frustration. In a six-heat timed 200 meter final, Shawnti placed fourth overall — though she won her heat. Run U Xpress was also third in the 4x400.
Even in those moments, Bershawn was quick to console her with practical advice.
“Sometimes, it’s not about the training,” Bershawn said. “It’s more about being competitive. I have to tell her sometimes, ‘I don’t care about the wins and losses. I want to teach her how to fight.”
Shawnti responded to those thoughts in exactly the way her father would have envisioned.
Just a few weeks later, she dropped a new U.S. No. 1 time in the 200m, going 23.53 at The 757 Showdown on Jan. 31. She added another win in the 60m in 7.40.
“She’s always had this ability to do this well, compete at any level,” said Davis, the Run U Xpress coach. “Over the years, I’ve seen her grow into this young lady who’s shown the world her capabilities. None of what she’s doing is a surprise to me. She’s the big kid with this small voice. On the track, she’s a different person.”
In February, in her professional debut, Shawnti was incredible, lowering her 200m best again. Then, Bershawn and his daughter returned to the Randal Tyson Track Center on Feb. 21.
Shawnti continued her assault on the 200m, hitting 23.45 for third-place among professional women.
A week later, Jackson ran it back again, this time at adidas Indoor Nationals. And while she found herself in a 60 meter final that would ultimately be won by someone else -- the result coming down to the thousandth-of-a-second -- her race performance was another example of matching the moment, regardless of win or loss.
Just an hour later, Jackson was brilliant again in the 4x400, leveraging her inside position in Lane 1 to hold off a challenger, who actually had the first step on her. Ultimately, Shawnti helped her club win a national title with a fierce final leg.
“I didn’t want to get cut-off when I was getting the stick,” she said. “so I tried to hurry up and turn around and go by before anyone else could.”
Over the course of two months in 2021, Shawnti secured four times under 24 seconds for 200 meters.
The performances were simply incredible. She would finish the season claiming the three fastest 200 meter performances in the country and had four efforts inside the top 10 performances overall.
Only one other female would run under 23.70 seconds -- in a race Shawnti did not run in.
“The biggest thing that Shawnti is understanding is her gift,” Davis said. “Getting acclimated to it and being able to relate to professional women is hard. They’re not in that same world.
“Every day, Shawnti has to get up and go to class. This isn’t a job to her yet. This is her having fun. Training is becoming better and better by each race.”
Two years ago, Shawnti was one of the best eighth-graders in the country and an obvious candidate for Freshman of the Year in 2020.
Having run a wind-legal 100 meter time of 11.60 and 24.12 seconds for 200 meters, her future seemed preordained, the daughter of an Olympic 400 meter hurdle legend.
But then a missed season made way for doubt — for athletic futures, for college recruiting, for everything.
Largely, the Cardinal Gibbons sophomore has erased all of that hesitation over the past few months.
And maybe those successes have made her reexamine just what she wants out of herself over the next few years.
“She has room to grow, which is scary at this point,” Davis said. “Considering what she’s already done.”
Maybe she’ll appease her father and finally decide to focus exclusively on the sport that made him famous and gave him a chance to represent his country.
Bershawn truly believes his daughter has an opportunity to improve even more over the spring. He says he could see her possibly eclipsing 23 seconds outdoors for 200 meters.
Fingers crossed, of course.
But before he gets ahead of himself, he also knows there are other responsibilities Shawnti holds close to her heart. Soccer, for instance, remains in her life -- and like track, she remains a talented prospect in the sport as well.
Sometimes, the father in Bershawn worries.
“In soccer, she’s so good. She’s so good and she’s so fast, I worry about her,” Bershawn said. “Girls, they slide tackle. They put elbows on her. They do anything to keep her out of the box. The Championship game, she scored four goals.”
Whatever happens, though, he’ll patiently wait on the sidelines, balancing the role he’s playing as a father and coach.
He knows his daughter is already showing signs of brilliance. But time and patience will eventually answer any questions the pair have about her future.
For a long time, Bershawn’s history in the sport was something Shawnti knew little about. She was so young at the time. Memories are captured in photographs.
But now, father and daughter are connecting in a way that’s changing their relationship. Bershawn can now point to that moment in Arkansas, her first against professionals. So can Shawnti.
On Feb. 7, she competed against the best women in the world and held her own.
No talk was necessary.
“I’m like, I hope this opens you eyes. I hope you can take track seriously because it might be your destiny,” Bershawn said.