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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

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Ashley Henderson Ashley Henderson

It’s All About Heart

Ashley Henderson found the confidence to win as an SDSU student-athlete.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

“The physical has always been there for me, but not always the mental, the belief that I could do it. Everybody (at this level) is fast. It’s all about who has the heart.”

This story appears in the summer 2018 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University

It took Ashley Henderson more than a decade to come to terms with her exceptional talent. She never really believed the family members and coaches who said she could excel as a sprinter. In fact, 7-year-old Ashley dreaded track meets, and even her teenage self slacked off at school, hoping low grades would make her ineligible to compete. (The plan backfired when her mom caught on.)

“I was the kid who had track meets every weekend and traveled all summer…to compete at championships. I never got a chance to go to Disney World, and hardly hung out with my friends,” she wrote in a disarmingly honest blog post published earlier this year. “I tried to force myself to believe I didn’t really hate track.”

Sometime between Henderson’s enrollment at San Diego State University and her graduation in May 2018, the athlete who dreaded competitive running began to relish it. The turnaround began as early as Henderson’s freshman year, when she earned second place in the 200-meter sprint at the Mountain West Indoor Championships and a spot among SDSU’s all-time fastest women. 

“It was clear when we recruited Ashley to SDSU that she had untapped talent,” said Shelia Burrell, Aztec track and field head coach. “It was also clear that she wasn’t a ‘track kid,’ meaning that she didn’t really study the sport. My assistant coach, Michelle Freeman, spent a lot of time with Ashley and coached her to a second place finish at the 2016 NCAA championships. I think that’s when Ashley finally began to understand what everyone around her had seen all along.”   

National spotlight

As a sophomore, Henderson enjoyed one of the best sprinting seasons in program history, qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials in both the 100-and 200-meter races; finishing a close second in the 100 at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships; and earning the title of Mountain West Outdoor Track & Field Woman Student-Athlete of the Year. 

Henderson capped off her collegiate career with another outstanding year in 2017-18. She became the first Aztec to break the 11-second barrier in the women’s 100-meter dash and ran a personal best of 22.49 in the 200-meter semi-final at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. Although she underperformed in the finals, she achieved another school record and personal best just weeks later—in the 100-meter sprint at the U.S. Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. 

READ: Women Who Shaped SDSU

“The physical has always been there for me, but not always the mental, the belief that I could do it,” Henderson admitted. “Everybody (at this level) is fast. It’s all about who has the heart.”

SaBrina (Bre) White, Henderson’s academic advisor at SDSU said she noticed gradual changes as the sprinter moved into the national spotlight. Henderson buckled down; she avoided serious relationships and social distractions. 

“Ashley hasn’t let anything get in the way of her goals,” White said. “She has a big personality and good friends, but she doesn’t have time for drama.” 

On to Tokyo 2020

What Henderson did make time for is building an Aztec network. She speaks at donor events and works to form relationships with SDSU alumni, who, she said, “are passionate about helping young scholars like myself succeed.”  

Burrell confirmed White’s assessment of Henderson as a team leader. “Like many other athletes who have come through our track and field program, Ashley has grown and matured, and I think her teammates are motivated to achieve similar success,” Burrell said. “I like to tell the team that this is a legacy program. Leave your legacy as an Aztec and make people ‘say your name.’”   

Henderson plans to continue training with Burrell as she prepares for the grueling road to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. She had a great start in July with a victory in the 100-meter race at the Athletic World Cup in London. In her international pro debut, the once-reluctant runner beat Olympic title-holder Elaine Thompson of Jamaica to become the reigning world champion.