Jessica Kamilos of Arkansas leads her heat during the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon, earlier this month. Courtesy | The University of Arkansas

In Neosho, Missouri, they know her as Jessica Jackson, farm girl and Neosho High long distance runner.

In Arkansas she has become Jessica Kamilos, All-American steeplechaser about to run not just with the nation’s best collegians but the nation’s best period at the USA National Track and Field Championships on June 26-29 in Sacramento, California.

At the University of Arkansas, psychology honors student Jessica Jackson through her Mormon church activities met and married Matt Kamilos, a UA student nearing graduation into law enforcement.

She also, as a redshirting freshman two springs ago under Arkansas Razorbacks women’s track coach Lance Harter, took up steeplechasing. This spring Kamilos progressed so fast that on June 13 at the NCAA Women’s Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon, the third-year sophomore joined senior teammate and two-time SEC Outdoor steeplechase champion Grace Heymsfield in shattering Heymsfield’s 9:53.75 UA record.

In Eugene, Heymsfield ran an All-American sixth place in 9:49.01 just behind Shalaya Kipp, the U.S. Olympian from Colorado and pre-meet favorite placing fifth in 9:48.90.

In hot pursuit of both, Kamilos scored an All-American seventh place, clocking 9:49.25.

Kamilos advanced to the NCAA Outdoor Championships final by placing third in her West Preliminary in 10:13.68 after a then personal record 10:08.73 for third at the SEC Outdoor. She clocked a PR (personal record) 10:01.01 in the June 11 semifinal in Eugene before stunning her coach again in the final.

When Heymsfield and Kamilos advanced to the NCAA Outdoor Championships from the NCAA West Outdoor Preliminary meet that the UA hosted in Fayetteville, Harter said All-American Heymsfield would run for team points in Eugene and Kamilos would run for experience.

“Turns out Jessica ran for experience and had a great experience,” Harter said.

An experience so great that Kamilos couldn’t anticipate it.

 “I was pretty shocked actually,” Kamilos said. “At this national meet all I wanted to do was qualify for the finals. I thought getting All-American was kind of a far stretch of a goal. But getting into the finals race, I got really determined and it turned out really well. When I crossed the line, I honestly didn’t think we were running that fast and then when I saw my name and the time next to it I almost fell over.”

Running so close to Heymsfield under any conditions would have Kamilos about falling over, but especially as Heymsfield broke her UA record.

“I didn’t know what to think,’’ Kamilos said. “I never hit that physical wall where I fell back.’’

Harter recalled Kamilos exceeding his reality pep talk before her steeplechase semifinal in Eugene .

“I said, ‘You know, kid, you’ve had a great season so we have nothing to lose,’ ” Harter said. “And she goes, ‘Well, I am not done yet.’

“Sure enough she slots into the automatic qualifiers and looks really good at 10:01. She had a day off before the final and she said, ‘If I just stick, people are going to be surprised.’ Sure enough, she stuck and stuck and stuck and with the last lap to go she was right next to Grace and now she is qualified for the USA Championships.’’

At a petite appearing 5-foot-2, Kamilos is not the tall hurdler normally seen clearing the steeplechase barriers and water jump.

Harter saw the tomboy from her parents’ horse farm refusing to come up short.

“I think Coach just saw I had the right muscle build for it despite my shortness,’’ Kamilos said. “I thought that I could do it, too.  When I was a little kid I used to set up jumps in the front yard with two chairs and a stick on top and I used to run and jump over them. So I guess I always had the excitement to jump over stuff. I always thought it was fun.’’

She even thinks bucking hay is fun, Harter marvels.

“When she said, ‘We buck a thousand bales a summer,’ I said, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” Harter said. “I used to buck hay myself. I said, ‘You drive the truck and your brothers throw the bales on’ and she said, ‘Not in my family. I throw them up there as well.’ I said, ‘As little as you are and you are bucking square bales? That is pretty impressive.’ ”

So impressive that Harter said he should have known better than to be surprised in Eugene.

“Making All-American,” Harter said, “hey, that’s a a lot easier than bucking bales in 100 degrees and 90 percent humidity in the middle of a field, then stacking them in a barn.”

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