Before Kori Carter annihilates her high school competitors with her speed, she disarms them with a hug.
The Claremont High senior, one of the top young hurdlers in the nation, approaches each of her adversaries before races, throws her arms around them and says a prayer. Her family said that some people find it endearing, and others find it mystifying.
“I’m just a hugger,” Carter said. “It’s just how I say hello. It’s not that big of a deal to be nice to people.”
Carter has won three state hurdling championships and will compete in the Southern Section finals on Saturday at Cerritos College. She is top-ranked in California in the 300-meter hurdles with a time of 41.99 seconds and second-ranked in the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 13.55.
Her coach, Richard Holmes, sees her as a future Olympian. “If she just concentrated on one of those events,” he said, “she’d be the national-record holder.”
Carter, 17, says she turned to hurdles when she needed a new challenge after being named most valuable player as the only girl on her eighth-grade flag football team. Those who’ve watched her grow into a track star say it’s not only natural talent that brings her such success but also an indefatigable work ethic.
Carter’s mother, Lena, recalls how last year on prom morning she accidentally scheduled an 8 a.m. hair appointment for her daughter that conflicted with her practice schedule. Refusing to take a day off, Carter instead went to the track at 5:30 a.m. There was only one problem.
“I was upset because my prom date said he’d work out with me,” she said. “He didn’t.”
With a lean and strong 5-foot-5, 115-pound frame, Carter can leg-press more than three times her weight. Strength is an important part of her makeup.
“I don’t feel like I have the pure, natural sprinter’s speed,” said Carter, who practices hurdles along Claremont’s Padua Hills. “It’s my technique that helps me pull away from girls in races.”
Since she began running competitively, she has refrained from eating sugary foods during the track season and even eschewed her favorite meal, hamburgers and french fries.
“Eating is my favorite thing to do,” Carter said. “I think, ‘Do you want the championship or that hamburger?’ ”
Her discipline has paid off. She’s heading to Stanford next fall on a full track scholarship. Track has also taken her to Poland and Italy, where she has made lasting friendships representing the USA’s junior and youth teams.
“I can say hands down, she’s the best athlete I’ve ever worked with,” Holmes said. “And as a person, she’s just a happy, giving soul.”
Some of her most grueling physical challenges, however, come around Christmas when she and her high-achieving brothers and sisters are all under one roof. Her oldest sister, Kai, 25, went to grad school at Harvard and her other sister, Kelly, 24, played soccer for San Diego State. Her brother, Brennen, 16, plays football and soccer.
Carter said it’s not unusual to see family members dive into walls during handball games, adding, “We’ll even have fights over Scrabble.”
She is the first to say she isn’t perfect, though. Having failed the driving test three times, Carter said her foot speed doesn’t really help her get around town.
“I’m not a distance runner,” she said, laughing.
Yet Carter loves chasing squirrels, once asking her mother to pull the car over so she could attempt to catch one. It apparently was a better hurdler than she was because she came back empty-handed. She also said that she secretly dreams of being a dragon-riding ninja.
Her interests, however, extend beyond the track and her rife imagination. She was class vice president during her sophomore and junior years and carries a 4.2 grade-point average.
“She’s really smart,” said Beatriz Guerra, Carter’s close friend and former teammate, “and really cares about people.”
That was evident last weekend at the Southern Section Division II preliminaries, when Carter comforted an opponent from Hemet High who had tripped over a hurdle during their 100-meter race and crashed onto the ground.
“We share a hurdle bond,” Carter said of Rebecca Doty, who hobbled off of the track with bloodied legs and tears streaming down her cheeks.
Carter was the only girl who came to Doty’s aid, offering her kind words and a hug.
“That was the first time I fell,” said Doty, who stopped crying after Carter’s embrace. “That was so nice of her.”