Jenna Prandini fooled no one, right from the beginning. And the signs were as indisputable as they were immediate.
“Always impeccable, always much better than the competition and always humble,” says lifelong friend and former teammate Shelby Little, who then referred specifically to Prandini as a 5-year-old soccer player: “When she got on the field, we knew we were going to win because no one could catch her — ever. It was one on one with the goalie, and she would score every time.”
It was then, older brother Mark Prandini recounts, “that Jenna scored like seven goals in her first Pee Wee soccer match. Everything she’s done was always really, really good.”
But this good? For the still soft-spoken, self-effacing 22-year-old from Clovis High? This good, really?
▪ Female Athlete of the Year for all sports at the University of Oregon.
▪ Honda Sports Award winner as the NCAA Athlete of the Year for women’s track and field.
▪ Three-time NCAA indoor and outdoor champion and 14-time All-American.
▪ And the golden achievement of all — U.S. national champion.
It occurred last Sunday about 2:30 p.m. at the USA Track and Field Championships on Prandini’s home track, Hayward Field, in Eugene, Oregon.
And it went like this.
She’s roaring away from an accomplished field in the 200 meters.
“My recollection goes fuzzy at about the 180 mark,” says father Carlo Prandini, standing then among a euphoric crowd of 10,746, many of whom have long embraced his daughter. “Can’t see much with tears in your eyes.”
Standing next to him is wife Theresa, who’s pounding the shoulder of a lady next to her, a woman she hasn’t known until that day.
Jenna Prandini hits the tape at 22.20 seconds, raises her arms in triumph, index fingers pointing to the northwest sky in an unprecedented personal display of emotion.
Ditto for Mom, but more.
Overcome, she collapses into her seat, bent forward and face in hands, bawling: “It was the most emotion I’ve ever had (at a meet). I’ve never cried, and I couldn’t stop.”
The evolution of her superstar daughter has found another level, and it’s worldly.
Cover girl for Track and Field News — long the sport’s bible — and solo splashed on a downtown Eugene billboard, her time ranks fourth on the planet this year, a mark that would have placed fourth in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
But why look back when the 2016 Games loom but 13 months ahead in Rio de Janeiro?
This isn’t Pee Wee soccer at Mickey Cox Elementary School on Armstrong Avenue.
This is the Games of the XXXI Olympiad at Brazil’s iconic Maracana Stadium. And no need to apologize for drawing one Jenna Elizabeth Prandini into the conversation.
Robert Johnson surely isn’t.
“You would think she has a great shot at making that,” says the track and field coach of an Oregon program that swept up the NCAA men’s and women’s team titles three weeks ago. “You would think that would very much be the case.”
Prandini’s performance at last week’s U.S. nationals — which included a sixth-place finish in the 100 that was actually disappointing to her after she captured NCAA gold in the event at the same venue — earned her membership on Team USA this summer. And that means an attempted sprint to further glory at the World Championships from Aug. 22-30 in Beijing.
First there will be stops in Monaco, France and Japan for a combination of competition, relay camps and training. Top-three finishers in each individual event at nationals automatically qualified for the Worlds, but in the run-up she also could earn the right to share the baton in Team USA’s 400 relay.
Never has she competed on foreign land.
And for all of her success — all the way back to that seven-goal soccer game as a 5-year-old — never has her spotlight drawn this wattage.
“Everything has happened so fast, it really hasn’t kicked in,” she says this week by cellphone from Eugene. “It hasn’t been a scary thing, but more like, ‘Wow, this is really cool, all that’s happening.’ It’s exciting and more than I ever could imagine.”
That also applies to the parents, who largely represent the roots of the genetic explanation here as San Joaquin Memorial accomplished athletes in the late 1960s and early ’70s (Mom was the former Theresa Ray).
“I’m really proud,” says Dad, “more than anything because Jenna’s a good girl who has worked hard and has always been team oriented. Whatever she’s done, from playing soccer at 5, she’s been ready to go and rises to the occasion. At the same time, she’s really grounded. It’s not an act to me when she gives credit to her coaches, teammates and friends. I’m so proud of her as a person and, of course, as an athlete.”
PRANDINI-OREGON: A PERFECT MARRIAGE
While Prandini was a five-time state champion in high school and already an 11-time NCAA All-American entering only her junior season in the spring, Oregon coach Johnson marvels particularly at the recent whirlwind of excellence.
“I’d be foolish to say we had any idea she would ascend to this level this quickly,” he says. “Maybe a few more years, absolutely; she has that type of talent. But to do it in this short of time is really remarkable.”
How to account for it? There are many explanations.
Her coaches point to the gifts, discipline and aptitude of a 5-foot-8 now-chiseled athlete who also has made the NCAA Academic All-America second team with a 3.55 GPA while pursuing a degree in general social sciences.
“She does all the little things right,” Johnson says three weeks after Prandini delivered an astounding 26 points (first in the 100 and silvers in the 200 and long jump) while powering the Ducks’ NCAA team title. “Whatever we ask, she does to the nth degree; exactly what we ask her to do.”
Prandini points to her coaches and an Oregon athletic department arguably resourced like none other nationally, anchored by Nike co-founder and Ducks alumnus Phil Knight.
“Oregon has set me up well for (this success),” she says. “And that was the big reason I came here, having the best coaches and trainers in the country, my ultimate goal of competing with the best girls in the country and winning a national championship.”
Specifically, Prandini says, she has been expertly groomed by Ducks sprints/hurdles coach Curtis Taylor, whom Johnson pilfered from Oakland’s Laney College two years ago.
“Curtis is the guy who thought up all of my training and brought me to where I am,” Prandini says. “He tries to turn us into technical machines. Curtis, I would say, is the best (sprint) coach in the country, and I know a lot of people would say that.”
And Carlo Prandini, former Clovis High track coach and principal and now deputy superintendent for the Clovis Unified District, points to this: While he couldn’t have forecasted NCAA and USA golds, it did strike him, before his daughter chose Oregon over a coast-to-coast menu of courting, that she was producing head-snapping marks without training in the sport year-round.
Meaning: Just how good might the former Bee All-Star volleyball player become when she concentrated exclusively on track and field in college?
“She had competed with the best in the state and her marks ranked high in the nation,” Dad says, “and I knew she hadn’t put in the time to track-only like some kids, who run all summer. She just competed in the traditional high school season, so I just knew her ceiling was really high. And I think that was also recognized by college recruiters, who liked the idea that she was at such a high level, but really had only done track from, let’s say, January to June, and then she was off to volleyball again.”
Prandini left Clovis in 2011 with Central Section records in the 100 (11.34), 200 (23.75) and triple jump (41-93/4), and also remains No. 3 all-time in the long jump (20-41/4).
How much better is she today?
Consider: Her 100 (10.92) and 200 (22.20) times are about 5 and 15 meters faster, while also ranking Nos. 2 and 4 in NCAA history. And she also has long-jumped 22-33/4 with relatively little investment while concentrating on the sprints. The 100, 200 and long jump marks are Oregon records.
Johnson was asked what did he think he was getting with Prandini out of high school as opposed to what he has today: “We saw someone who worked hard and was very talented in a number of areas. And there’s probably a huge amount of additional growth as she’s able to add size and strength and grasps what she’s doing even better.”
SUPPORT IS FAMILY/COMMUNITY AFFAIR
Eugene is 650 miles from Clovis, but Prandini might as well be competing at Lamonica Stadium, a couple of blocks south of her family’s two-story home on Gibson Avenue.
Casey Johnson, Oregon’s Sports Information assistant for track and field, says he’s found “amazing” the social media support Prandini has received from Clovis on Facebook and Twitter.
The most profound show of support of all had a 48-person army of family and friends from Clovis to San Diego descend upon Hayward Field for the NCAA Championships June 10-13.
All wore black T-shirts with yellow lettering: “Go Jenna Go!” and a silhouette of a ponytailed girl running with strong resemblance of her.
So popular was the attire among Oregon-biased crowds that swelled to an overflow 11,734 for the final day that the Prandinis could have set up shop and started a business.
“We could have sold a lot of them,” the father says, “but that wasn’t the purpose.”
No, the purpose was the family’s latest outpouring of love for one of their own.
“To see it all play out has been so rewarding for her, for Clovis High and our family,” older sister Chrissy Prandini says. “We’re all so proud of what she has accomplished, and we’re protective of her because she’s kind of everybody’s kid.”
And for all the attention, notoriety and recognition, she’s “The same ol’ Jenna,” older brother Mark Prandini says from New York, where he’s teaching as part of the Teach for America organization. “Just the way she carries herself with friends, family and coaches; she has no sense of entitlement. She really hasn’t changed at all.”
The Prandini contingent at the NCAAs included 15 cousins, ranging in age from 4 to their 20s.
And the intimacy wasn’t lost on the athlete performing for thousands.
For all those fans — and they don’t get any more vocal or knowledgeable in the land than those at the track and field cathedral called Hayward Field — Jenna Prandini could actually identify voices from the tiny cousins imploring her on.
“Distinctly,” she says. “I could hear them before the 100 and on the long jump. Oh my gosh, it was awesome. It was like the state meets (at Buchanan), them cheering me on. I was really happy.”
They all were, they all are, and they yearn for more.
So surely they will continue to follow, if from afar, from France to Japan to China, back to Oregon and then Brazil?
Dad knows this, not discounting the labrum problem in his daughter’s hip as a freshman in high school, the stress fracture in a foot that caused a redshirt year as a freshman at Oregon and a hamstring pull that removed her from this season’s Pac-12 Championships: “So much has to go right in track.”
And it has, evident in the three cases of neatly arranged medals — dozens upon dozens, and mostly gold, of course — hanging on a wall of her second-floor bedroom in Clovis; the elegant Honda Award with “Jenna Prandini” inscribed that arrived via mail at the house Thursday and the USA Championship trophy standing next to her apartment bed near the campus in Eugene.
Overwhelming, yet true for the little soccer sensation bursting from Clovis into America’s view, if not more.
“As a little girl,” she says, “I dreamed of going to the Olympics. Now it’s a realistic possibility and that’s what I’m aiming for.”
World sprint leaders in women’s track and field
- 1. 10.79 Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Jamaica
- 1. 10.79 English Gardner, USA
- 3. 10.81 Murielle Ahouré, Cote D’Ivoire
- 3. 10.81 Tori Bowie, USA
- 5. 10.84 Elaine Thompson, Jamaica
- 5. 10.84 Kelly-Ann Baptiste, Trinidad and Tobago
- 7. 10.87 Blessing Okagbare, Nigeria
- 8. 10.92 Jenna Prandini, USA
- 8. 10.92 Jasmine Todd, USA
- 10. 10.93 Jeneba Tarmoh, USA
- 1. 21.98 Allyson Felix, USA
- 2. 22.14 Shaunae Miller, Bahamas
- 3. 22.18 Dezerea Bryant, USA
- 4. 22.20 Jenna Prandini, USA
- 5. 22.23 Tori Bowie, USA
- 6. 22.24 Kamaria Brown, USA
- 6. 22.24 Kyra Jefferson, USA
- 8. 22.29 Murelle Ahouré, Cote D’Ivoire
- 8. 22.29 Jeneba Tarmoh, USA
- 10. 22.30 Dina Asher-Smith, Great Britain