Winning and excellence natural for Tolbert

Sept. 12, 2008

Inaugural Hall of Fame Class | HOF Dinner Tickets On Sale

Vanderbilt is planning a special Hall of Fame weekend for September 12-13. A series of events will unfold over those two days, capped by the Induction Banquet Friday evening, September 12 and the Class of 2008 being presented at halftime of Saturday’s Rice football game. will spotlight one inductee per day leading up to the Hall of Fame weekend.

Ryan Tolbert Jackson began running at 6-years-old. A physical education teacher explained that she could win prizes by competing in road races and the like. According to Jackson, she really wanted to win and get those prizes.

“It’s something that I enjoy doing,” she said about running and competing.

Her drive to win and succeed would eventually culminate in a 1997 individual NCAA national championship in the 400 hurdles, with a record time, for the Commodores and an extended, professional running career.

In recognition of her achievements, Vanderbilt will induct Jackson into its inaugural Hall of Fame class Friday evening. The former track star joins Chantelle Anderson, Peggy Brady, Dan McGugin and John Rich, among seven other elite candidates in the class.

“Vanderbilt has been around over 100 years and there’s a lot of athletic history there that people don’t know about,” said Jackson. “I’m really excited and humbled to be one of the first inductees.”

Jackson graduated from this university in 1998 with a degree in human and organizational development and a minor in sociology. She competed professionally from 1998 until the completion of the 2004 Olympics trials, and also found time to attain a master’s degree in school counseling from the University of West Georgia.

Growing up, the speed demon hadn’t given much thought to attending college on a track scholarship until her parents suggested the idea. She played softball, basketball and volleyball during her younger years, but decided to focus on track in high school.

“It’s the sport that I was good at, and it came the easiest to me,” she said.

Then, former VU track coach Lori Shepard saw Jackson’s results from the Great Southwestern Classic in Arizona and recruited her to Vanderbilt. So, Ryan, who called New Mexico home, headed east, which presented its own share of surprises.

“It was a big change from coming from the desert and actually seeing trees, things that were green,” she said.

But, she fell in love with the university, her track program and Nashville. Ryan really enjoyed her classes and professors in the Peabody College, and even met her husband, who was a VU athletic department graduate assistant at the time, during her junior year.

“I loved my whole Vanderbilt experience. I still brag about it,” she added. “I think it’s just a great place to be around people who are doing positive things.”

While at Vanderbilt, Jackson compiled one of the most impressive resumes for an athlete that this school has witnessed. In addition to being the only Commodore to ever win an individual NCAA championship, she placed second in the NCAA Outdoor 400-meter hurdles in 1996, with runner-up finishes in the Indoor 400-meter dash from 1996-98, qualified third in the Outdoor 400-meter dash in 1997 and fifth in the Indoor 1,600-meter relay in 1998.

“How I got involved in the 400-meter hurdles was kind of a fluke,” she said of the event she won in 1997. “I was recruited as a heptathelete not a hurdler. That was my main thing.”

Jackson injured her shoulder throwing the javelin her freshman year, and Shepard decided to try her at hurdles. Ryan didn’t immediately succeed in the event, however.

“I can remember the first time I ran them at the meet in Indiana it was not pretty at all, but the second time it was better,” she said. “The third time, I think it was, I qualified for nationals.”

Shepard continued to work with her, and refined her step pattern for the hurdling.

“By the time I went to nationals in 1997, it was kind of like I had run them enough to where it was second nature,” she said, “and I could take it to the next step, which was just run hard and try to win.”

Jackson explained that she began realizing she could compete on a national and international stage and at an elite level after her performance in 1997. She started wondering what else she could accomplish.

“I realized that if I worked hard for something and put in the time and the training I could accomplish great things,” she said.

So, Ryan entered the world of professional running after graduation. She really enjoyed the training and competition at this level, but a series of injuries forced her to bow out after the 2004 Olympic trials.

Vanderbilt crystallized her athletic achievement by naming its highest team honor the “Tolbert Cup.” The annual award recognizes the varsity squad with the best combination of athletic success, academic achievement and community services – principles that Jackson appreciates.

“That’s definitely meant more to me as time has gone on,” she said. “I hadn’t been out of school that long when they did that. I look back now and I think it was an honor, especially the part where they give it to the team that exudes excellence in community service.

“The community service component is something that I really, really appreciated about the team.”

Ryan recently completed her master’s last spring, and has moved to Northridge, Calif. with her family. Her husband, Michael, serves as the assistant director of residence life at California State Northridge, while she’s remains at home to care for her 2-year-old son, Kaleb.

“This is the most settled I’ve been in a long time,” she said.

Despite retiring from track, Jackson continues to run for fun. Looking back, she recognizes the profound influence the sport’s had on her life.

“I feel like I’ve learned how to be committed and disciplined to something,” she said. “Even now, if I see something’s that challenging or difficult, usually I can come up with some kind of comparison with track, whether it’s practicing or learning how to do something day-in and day-out and be excellent at it.”

Ryan will return to Nashville with her family for the Hall of Fame ceremonies this weekend, which includes a banquet Friday evening and a halftime presentation at the home football game Saturday.

“I think it’s going to be fun to sit around and hear about the other candidates’ experiences and about what it took for them to get to that level or do the things they did to be honored in the Hall of Fame,” she said. “I’m happy to be honored for my time at Vanderbilt.”

09/11/08: Clyde Lee: A hometown boy makes good
09/10/08: Fred Russell was a legendary journalist
09/09/08: Bill Wade was Nashville’s All-American boy
09/08/08: Peggy Brady thankful for opportunity
09/07/08: Perry Wallace continues to inspire others
09/06/08: Dan McGugin’s legacy stands strong
09/05/08: June Stewart honored to be in inaugural class
09/03/08: John Hall a student-athlete in every sense
09/02/08: Roy Kramer reflects on special years at Vanderbilt
09/01/08: John Rich’s success spurred by Vanderbilt experience
08/31/08: Chantelle Anderson still pinching herself