Every week, the Blue Zone breaks down an outstanding spring athlete, looking at their weekly performance and their season as a whole. Up next is Lauren Tolbert:
When track and field head coach Shawn Wilbourn flagged freshman Lauren Tolbert as one to watch in the preseason, he spoke with remarkable foresight. The sprinter from Belmont, N.C., has had a monumental rookie season on the track, quickly becoming one of the most important names on the women’s sprinting team. Tolbert, who specializes in longer sprints like the 400m and 800m races, runs every meet like she has something to prove. Indeed, the young runner has proven that she is something special.
Tolbert took on the outdoor track for the first time in college at the Alan Connie Shamrock Invitational, where she clinched fourth in the women’s 200m — behind two Blue Devil teammates and one Duke graduate — and set a new personal record. Then she got even faster, placing second in the 400m dash at the Raleigh Relays just a week later.
Most recently, this rookie reaffirmed her status as one of the speediest Blue Devils with a stellar performance in the Wake Forest Invitational that stretched throughout the weekend. Duke was joined in Winston Salem, N.C., by a plethora of East Coast talent; it was a competition stacked with ACC rivals the Blue Devils will gear up to face in the conference championships May 11.
None of this talent posed a threat to Tolbert. Not only did she clinch an invitation to the women’s 800m invite race — reserved for elite competitors — but she went ahead and won it, too, running her two laps around the asphalt in just 2:04.87. This lightning-quick time came close to parrying her personal record in the 800m, which Tolbert set on the indoor track back in February at 2:04.44. That mark is fast enough to place in the top-five women’s 800m race times in Duke program history.
This is the kind of ambition that Tolbert brings to the table. This weekend’s performance was anything but an anomaly for the Highland School of Technology product, who has found herself to be a key piece of Duke’s success in anything that has to do with sprints.
Of course, Tolbert’s individual performances are stellar: In the outdoor season alone, she’s earned four top-five finishes in individual events. She’s arguably even more impactful in a relay setting. Tolbert quickly took a permanent position on the women’s 4x400m squad, one of Duke’s most competitive and storied events. Alongside sophomore teammate Megan McGinnis, Tolbert keeps the event at the top of nearly every score sheet, even while the other two spots on the relay team rotate through different runners weekly. In the indoor and outdoor seasons combined, Tolbert has been on three first-place 4x400m teams, each time running at a program top-five speed.
One more meet stands between the Blue Devils and the ACC Outdoor Championships. The Penn Relays, a race that will begin on Thursday and run through Saturday, gives Duke a solid three days to test its speed one last time. Tolbert’s role in the fight for gold will be vital, both in her individual contributions and as a part of the relay team. Her consistent ability to perform at a high level is just what the team needs as the spring rounds out. If the freshman continues at this pace, the Blue Devils could very well find themselves sitting pretty at the top of a conference podium.
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.