The winding journey of track athlete Kristal McGregor to lofty heights of American academia


The winding journey of track athlete Kristal McGregor to lofty heights of American academia

Observer writer

Sunday, May 10, 2020

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Kristal McGregor competed in track and field while at St Andrew High School for Girls between 2001- 2004, making a number of finals at the ISSA Championships and even winning the discus throw at a JAAA National Junior Trials, but she never thought of the other benefits the sport could afford her.

While at 'Andrews' under the guidance of Coach Phillip Davy, McGregor never considered the idea that she could get a scholarship which could open up portals for her she never even thought existed.

Not only did she not know about the opportunities that were available, but the fact never occurred to her she could obtain postgraduate degrees through sports-related scholarships.

“If I'm honest, I was not fully aware of scholarship opportunities to go overseas while I was in high school,” she told the Jamaica Observer in an interview last week

She actually dropped the sport after leaving the secondary-level institution, started playing basketball during her short stay at Excelsior Community College (Exed), and was looking to resume playing basketball after migrating to the USA before the fateful intervention of track and field Coach Ed Howard at Bronx Community College, where she got “back on track” and on her way.

Today, Dr Kristal McGregor has completed her PhD studies after attending Hampton University in Virginia on a full scholarship, where she also obtained her master's degree and was a coach and recruiter.

It was not a smooth ride, however.

The native of Mount Pleasant, near Golden Spring in St Ann, had to get over several hurdles on her way to her goal.

“When I first got to the US, my focus was to find a job – going back to college was never on my mind. I started working in retail in New York when my manager encouraged me to go back to school to obtain a degree in marketing. I applied for Bronx Community College [BCC] and got accepted for the fall 2006 semester. Initially I wanted to play basketball, but they did not have a programme for females. They had a track team, and I decided to join,” a decision that would change her life.

“My coach, Mr Howard at BCC, told me that if I worked hard I would be able to obtain a scholarship to a Division 1 programme. At that time I had no idea what a Division 1 programme was, but he believed in me so much that it motivated me to work hard. After not competing in track for a while, my first year at BCC went well.”

McGregor was to improve and her dedication started paying off.

“It was my second year when I started improving in numbers. I was the NJCAA (National Junior College Athletics Association) DIII MVP, and I dominated my events within our conference as well. I obtained a full athletic scholarship to Hampton University after I graduated BCC, December 2008. I started Hampton in January 2009,” she recalled.

A Jamaican coach, Raymond “KC'” Graham was partially responsible for her going to Hampton.

“I was at a track meet at UMES (University of Maryland Eastern Shore) and I saw him. I had won that meet and pretty much beat all the D1 athletes, and he came up to me and we started talking. He then introduced me to the head coach,” she said.

At Hampton, McGregor majored in marketing wherein she had to do “three years of indoor eligibility and two years of outdoor eligibility at Hampton”.

“There was a lot that happened when I got to Hampton; numerous coaching changes and I suffered a meniscus tear, which required surgery. So, after my first complete season at Hampton, I had to do a surgery in June 2009. Recovery took a while. Now when I think about it, I never really gave myself enough time to heal, so it took a while for me to be able to get back on track. Eventually I decided that I would focus on getting a degree,” McGregor shared.

After graduating from Hampton with a degree in marketing she said she tried to stay in track and field as a competitor, “but I kept getting injured frequently, and I just decided to close that chapter of my life”.

The next move, she says, was to become a coach and volunteer, and she even did a bit of journalism with the Jamaican track and field website and coached a youth soccer team in New York.

“Occasionally, I would volunteer to coach track and field at BCC and Mount Saint Michael [Academy]. I ended up volunteering with Team Jamaica Bickle, and [CEO] Irwine Claire allowed me to attend one of their sessions to speak to athletes and coaches about transitioning from high school to college in the United States in 2012,” she recollected.

Her life was to take another twist in June of 2012 when she was at a meet in New York working for when “I ran into my former collegiate Coach Maurice Pierce”.

“He told me he wanted me to think about coming back to Hampton to serve as an assistant coach. I accepted his offer, and I moved back to Virginia in August 2012 where I started my career as the director of operations and throws coach for Hampton University's men and women track and field programme,” McGregor said.

This was where she said she developed a love for mentoring and guiding student athletes.

“I believe my uncertainties of not knowing what career path I wanted to take after graduating gave me a desire to start assisting student athletes with thinking through what their plans will be after they graduate,” she noted.

At Hampton part of her function was to recruit international student athletes.

“It was a challenging task. As a young female coach I would approach many coaches in Jamaica, and they wouldn't take me seriously. Over time I developed a connection with Coach David Riley so one of my first recruits was one of his athletes, and that opened the door by assisting me with getting other athletes.

“I recruited Rayon Black from Wolmer's Boys', then Sharlanjo Nelson from Jamaica College, and once I got my feet in the door, I started connecting with different coaches and athletes. I would have athletes reach out to me to ask questions, or ask me to serve as a mentor, or just wanted someone who understood the challenges they were facing to listen to them. I never hesitated in doing so because I firmly believe in giving back; I believe in helping the younger generation, I believe in paying forward,” McGregor beamed.

Two years later in 2014, McGregor enrolled in the sports administration programme at Hampton University to work on her masters and that allowed her, with the support of her lecturers, to volunteer with Magic Johnson Foundation and the BET Super Bowl Gospel Celebration.

“I loved these experiences, but I knew there was something more that I should be doing. My professor at Hampton introduced me to Dr Ketra Armstrong at the University of Michigan, who served as the School of Kinesiology associate dean for graduate affairs. She told me all about the programme, and honestly, I was not interested. Going after a PhD was never on my list. Never! [But] even when I doubted myself, my professors and mentor echoed that I was a perfect candidate to start a PhD programme. I took a step of faith, and I applied.”

In February 2015 she was accepted in Rackham Graduate College at University of Michigan for the PhD in Sport Management programme within the School of Kinesiology, a fully funded degree programme, and in May that year she became the first student to graduate from Hampton University's sport management master's programme who went on to a PhD programme.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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