Tom Archdeacon: Springfield’s Lloyd leaves the doubters in her dust

Or, maybe, if he could have foreseen those four glorious years at Wright State or been there for her performances at those track meets just last month in Montverde, Florida and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Best of all, if the old doubter could be there this morning for the 10:30 service at the El Bethel Temple on Clifton Avenue in Springfield. That’s where her dad is the pastor and where she sings alongside her mom in the praise choir.

And it’s where the congregation will give her a nice sendoff for her big trip later this week.

That old skeptic saw none of this when he came up to Cassandra Lloyd at a Springfield track as she was going through a summer training session on the hurdles some 10 years ago.

“He told me I was too short to make it over the hurdles,” the 5-foot-5 Lloyd recalled with a smile. “He said I wouldn’t do well in college or after that. He said I was just too small and wouldn’t get anywhere.”

The guy must not have heard of 5-foot-3 Gail Devers, who won three Olympic gold medals as a sprinter in Barcelona and Atlanta and won four more golds and three silvers as a hurdler in a decade of world championship meets in Tokyo, Stuttgart, Budapest, Birmingham, Gothenburg, Edmonton and Seville.

More importantly, though, the old naysayer knew nothing about Cassandra Lloyd.

“What he said kept pushing me,” she said. “Gail Devers had proved it doesn’t matter what height you are if you have talent and work hard. And I was gonna prove him wrong, too.”

Not get anywhere?

As a senior at Springfield South High School, she won the Division I state championship in the 100-meter hurdles.

At Wright State, she almost single-handedly lifted a program that doesn’t even have a track into the national spotlight.

She became WSU’s first Division I All-American. Three times she was named the Horizon League Athlete of the Year and for four years straight WSU named her its female athlete of the year.

She graduated in 2012 and although she just missed a berth in the Olympic Trials that year, she stuck with her sport — even while working a job — and continued to pursue her dream of one day being a U.S. Olympian.

This year she’s had to overcome some long odds — she lost her coach who moved to Texas, trained herself for nearly seven months and didn’t have the finances to travel to meets around the nation.

Two months ago, her new boyfriend, Skyy Simmons — a former Syracuse University hurdler and West Chester University football player — moved to the Miami Valley and began to train her.

On June 11, at the Star Athletics Pro Meet in Montverde, she turned in a time of 12.96 seconds in the 100-meter hurdles, the second-fastest of her career. That met the Olympic Trials qualifying standard (13.0 seconds) and finally assured her of a trip to Eugene, Oregon this week.

Just a week ago — running another pre-Trials race in Halifax — she had a personal record (PR) 12.86 in the 100 meters.

Although the 32 woman who will compete in the 100-meter hurdles in Eugene comprise the most loaded field of all the Olympic Trials track events — front-runner Keni Harrison ran a 12.24 last month and 11 of the top 15 performers in the world are from the U.S. — don’t dismiss the 26-year-old Lloyd.

Although she comes in with the 13th-fastest time and only the top three finishers go to the Games in Rio next month, she showed that old naysayer long ago she’s got a way of proving you wrong.

And that’s why she’s laid claim to her mom’s china cabinet.

“Except for the good china I got when I was married and a few glasses and mugs, I’ve had to move everything else out,” Anita Lloyd, Cassandra’s mom, said with a laugh. “She’s got all her awards in there, She’s got the whole top and three or four shelves, too.

“And all her medals from middle school and high school, they’re hanging up in the living room on hooks.

“She’s got quite a collection.”

‘Carrying the torch’

Cassandra’s first cousin is John Stephens. The son of her Aunt Phyllis, he grew up in Springfield.

The world now knows him as 10-time Grammy-winning singer John Legend.

While he reluctantly changed his name at the prompting of poet J. Ivy and recording artist and producer Kanye West, she became something of a legend the hard way.

“I just told her the other day, if you looked in the dictionary under the word perseverance, beside it would be a picture of her,” said her dad, Pastor Raymond Lloyd, Jr. “She follows what I try to teach all the kids. I called them The 4 Ds: desire, decision, determination and discipline.

“She works out religiously every day. She kept at it and never gave up even though she had no money and little support to keep going.”

Then again, she’s used to beating the odds.

“I didn’t get many offers coming out of high school,” she said. “I feel like you’ve got to make your mark as a junior and I didn’t win state until I was a senior.”

Although WSU’s track athletes train at Fairborn High and hurdlers like Cassandra lay out mats to run on in Wright State’s McLin Gym during the winter, she became, as Fabien Corbillon, the former WSU coach now at Texas A&M, once said: “The best athlete we ever had on campus.”

After Corbillon left, Cassandra — who had been a graduate assistant coach on his staff — struggled to train herself.

“I had been trying to get under 13 (seconds) for a few years and I just couldn’t do it,” said Lloyd, who had broken the barrier only once in her career, in 2013, when she registered a 12.90.

She needed to break 13 seconds to meet the Olympic standard and get invited to the Trials, but with one local sponsor — Runners Plus — and no national backer, she didn’t have the funds to go to various national meets to try to run a lower time.

Some nine months ago she met Skyy Simmons through mutual friends. At the time he was trying to transition from a track athlete at Syracuse University to a pro wide receiver in the Canadian Football League after playing one year of college football as a grad student transfer at Division II West Chester in Pennsylvania.

Although that venture would be sidetracked recently when he was cut by the Ottawa Redblacks, he had begun to make a name for himself training NFL combine prospects in Florida. He and Lloyd began a long-distance romance and he began to give her training tips via video, email and phone. Occasionally, he made a trip to Ohio.

“At first she was very nervous because she was very off on her times,” he said. “She’d call me up, sometimes crying, and I’d try to give her motivational tactics.

“But through it all she never lost faith. And then in May I moved to Ohio and was able to train her face to face. We made some changes and she really started to come on. It just blew my mind and it says a lot about her and what she’s all about.”

That Lloyd is making her mark here as an Olympic-caliber hurdler is fitting. The Miami Valley has been home to some great hurdlers over the past four decades:

Fairview High’s Edwin Moses was unbeaten in 122 straight 400-meter hurdle races and won Olympic gold at the 1976 Montreal Games and the 1984 Los Angeles Games (and had the U.S. not boycotted Moscow in 1980, he’d likely have won there, too) and took bronze at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Trotwood-Madison standout LaVonna Martin-Floreal competed in two Olympics and won silver in the 100-meter hurdles at Barcelona in 1992.

Meadowdale’s Tonja Buford-Bailey competed in three Olympic Games and took bronze in the 400-meter hurdles in Atlanta in 1996.

Central State product Deon Hemmings won Olympic gold in the 400-meter hurdles in Atlanta and became the first Jamaican to win Olympic gold. She also took silver in the 2000 Sydney Games.

After listening to that litany — which could also include Trotwood Olympian Tranel Hawkins, who finished sixth in the 400 hurdles at the 1984 Olympics and Ohio State standout Donica Merriman of Trotwood — Lloyd shrugged and smiled:

“Yeah, I guess I am carrying the torch.”

True to her dream

When he first started to date Lloyd, Simmons admits he felt “a little intimidated.”

“She’s a pastor’s daughter,” he said with a bit of a chuckle. “I mean, I’m a Christian guy myself and my grandmother is a real faith woman, but still, you don’t want to say anything wrong around a preacher.”

He described Cassandra as “a real Godly woman” and when you consider pedigree — not just that Philippians 4:13 passage she has tattooed on her upper left arm — you see that’s not a stretch.

Not only is her dad — who also was a basketball player at Springfield South and Muskingum University — a preacher, but so was her grandfather and her great granddad, who started another church over 90 years ago on South Yellow Springs Street in Springfield.

While they know religion, Cassandra and her five sisters and two brothers also know education.

“Six of the kids already graduated college, three have master’s degrees and one is working on a PhD,” said her dad. ‘”The other two kids will have their college degrees in the next three years, too. So all eight will be college grads.

“With my wife and I, education wasn’t optional.”

Asked one way Cassandra might stand out from her other children, Anita thought a second, then said: “Her dedication. She has put so much work into her track and stayed with it even when she couldn’t get her times down.”

Her other distinction is her ability to sing. She’s the only one of the eight children in the church choir.

In fact, as she got ready for a workout with her cousin, Wayne High junior Makayala Portis, the other morning at Fairborn High, you could hear Cassandra singing a bit of gospel singer Anthony Brown’s ”Worth,” a song she has soloed at Sunday service:

“You thought I was worth saving, so You came and changed my life.”

Her hurdling performances have changed notably in the past month, as well.

“And she hasn’t run her best race yet,” said her dad. “She’s getting more and more comfortable with her new form, so who knows what will happen. She’s still got these Olympics and possibly the next.”

Simmons, too, believes the best is yet to come: “She ran great in Florida and then went to Canada this past weekend and got another PR. I have no doubt she’ll go to the Trials and PR again.”

Cassandra will run her first heat Thursday and though the field is stacked, she said: “I’m just going to try to keep advancing through the rounds and, if you do, anything can happen.

“I’m not giving up on my dream. I’ll go as far as my legs will take me.”

Already that’s meant a state crown and a career as one of the most celebrated athletes ever at Wright State. In a few days it also will include the Olympic Trials.

So much for the old naysayer.

So much for not getting anywhere.

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