Maybe someday they'll pay more attention to the Kiara Porter who crosses the finish line and not the one standing alongside her competitors.
Porter at rest is easy to overlook amid the college track sprinterazzi, at 5-feet and 110 pounds. Porter in motion, however, is a pocket-sized blur beginning to make a name for herself in the sport.
The VCU sophomore from Tabb High has been on a tear the past year. She's the top-rated women's sprinter in the Atlantic 10 Conference, heading into the league's outdoor track and field championships Saturday and Sunday in Charlotte.
"It was shocking to me last year to see how well she did so soon," Rams head coach Jon Riley said. "But after working with her for an entire year, I'm not surprised at anything she does because she works so hard."
Porter, a 200- and 400-meter specialist, trimmed six-tenths of a second off of her time in the 200 and clocked a school record 23.28 seconds earlier this spring. Her personal best of 53.11 seconds in the 400 in a meet at Vanderbilt was almost a full second faster than her earliest quarter-miles last spring. She is a mainstay on the Rams' 400 and 1,600-meter relays.
Her success is a combination of maturity, added strength and confidence, from her trip to Barcelona last summer as part of the U.S. Junior National team.
"Coming into college, I was really nervous about my height," Porter said, "because I'm only 5-foot-even and most 400 meter runners are a lot taller than that. But after going to Spain this past summer and representing the U.S.A., I feel like a new confidence has happened, that I can run with them. It doesn't matter about my size, as long as I trust my training and I trust my coaches, I will be able to compete with them on that level."
Porter's Spain experience, Riley said, provided both validation and motivation. She was chosen for the U.S. team after her performance at the junior national meet. In Barcelona, she ran a leg in the 4x400 relay preliminary heats.
She was replaced in the medal race, where the U.S. won gold, despite clocking the fourth-fastest time out of the group selected to run the relay. She still earned a gold medal, because runners in the preliminary heats count as part of the team.
"It showed her that no matter how big or how small she is, she can compete with anyone in the world," Riley said. "It was a good lesson, because she knew that she was able to compete with those kids. But at the same time, she was still overlooked when she was there.
"It was almost like: Who is this little girl; what is she doing here? Not until she ran, then it was like, OK, we need to pay a little more attention to her because size doesn't matter. If she puts it in her head that she can do it, it's done. It's helped her with her confidence, but it also motivated her."
Porter was a self-described "late bloomer" at Tabb who drew scant recruiting attention until the end of her senior year, in part because of her size. She won indoor state titles at 55 and 300 meters and was part of a state championship 4x400 relay. Outdoors, she set state AA records in the 200 (24.18) and 400 meters (54.77) and was a part of the winning mile relay team.
She had signed to attend VCU in February of her senior year, which she said was her destination school since she was a freshman. She didn't want to go too far from home, and she meshed with Riley, who wore a path down I-64 watching her compete and work out.
Porter has put in the work to improve on the track, particularly in the weight room. All things being equal, she normally would require more strides and quicker turnover to cover the same distance as taller quarter-milers. But because she is significantly stronger than a year ago, she has lengthened her stride to that of a sprinter much taller.
"She's knowledgeable enough to know that she has to continue to progress," Riley said. "That's the good thing about it. She knows what her talents are. She's pushing harder to get somewhere beyond where she thinks her talents are, because everyone's told her she's too little, she's too small and she uses that as motivation to prove everyone wrong. It's always great when an athlete has a motivating factor to get better."
Porter has blossomed, athletically and academically.
"I really thought that I would struggle a little bit with having to balance the traveling (to compete) with classes," she said. "But my professors are very understanding and they really try to help the best they can, with make-up work and helping me understand stuff on the days that I miss class."
Porter's future, Riley believes, is as a quarter-miler. Given her progress in the past two years, he hesitates to place limitations on her potential.
"I think the sky's the limit," Riley said. "I think she can make a few national teams. It just depends on how much she wants it. I tell the athletes, I give them the workouts, they're the ones who have to complete the tasks. The more she's pushing herself to that next level, the better she's going to be. I think the ceiling is just infinite right now. We just don't know."
Porter set goals this outdoor season of clocking a sub-53-second 400 meters and getting into the low 23s at 200 meters. She has reached one and is working on the other. She would like to qualify for the national meet.
"If I reach my goals, the results will come," she said. "If I hit those times and I don't make the national meet, I can live with that."
Riley isn't one to bet against her reaching any of her goals and becoming a larger figure in women's track.