Feature Friday: Julia Jackson Is Burning Up The Track

Like most girls growing up in soccer-crazed Scotch Plains, Julia Jackson started playing that sport at a young age. And she continued to play soccer when she got to high school.

But then Jackson decided to run indoor track during her freshman year, which changed everything.

Jackson thought she was using track and field as a way to just stay in shape, a very common theme among high school athletes. But much to her surprise, she discovered a new passion and untapped a new talent.

That spring, Jackson was consistently running 59's in the 400m, which is fantastic for a freshman. But by the end of the season, she exploded with a school record 56.94 to place 11th at the Meet of Champions. That time is the 16th fastest time run by a New Jersey freshman in the last decade (2010-19).

A star had been born.

Now Jackson, a junior at Scotch Plains-Fanwood, has dropped soccer and has focused completely on track and field.

And the results just keep getting faster and faster.

Jackson continued her red hot indoor campaign by adding to her collection of records and her remarkable resume when she ran 57.15, the third fastest time in the state this season, to win the 400m at the Union County Championships last Sunday at the Bennett Center in Toms River. It was the first of probably several county titles in Jackson's career.

NJ MileSplit recently caught up with Jackson for an in-depth Q and A where she shared her big goals, her year-round commitment to the sport and strong work ethic, how a local legend has inspired her, and a whole lot more.

So, lean back in your fancy recliner, lay on the couch, or kick back in your home office and enjoy our latest installment of Feature Friday as we shine the spotlight on junior Julia Jackson of Scotch Plains-Fanwood. 

Julia Jackson Interview

NJM: First off, congrats on your indoor PR and school record 57.15 to win the 400 at the Union County Championships. What did it mean to you, Julia, to break your own record and win your first county title?

Thank you so much! Breaking my record and winning my first county title showed me that all of the work I put in this past summer and fall on the track has paid off. Honestly when I saw my time at first I didn't believe it, but I showed myself just how strong I can be when I push myself. 

Your 57.15 is the third fastest time in the state this season. What does that mean to you, Julia? There are lots of great quarter milers in the state, so to be No. 3 has to feel pretty satisfying?

It is an amazing feeling. I never thought I would rank even top five in the state until senior year. It feels so satisfying, especially to know that I still have spring season to come, and that I will be able to get in even better shape by then.

Scotch Plains has had a lot of great 400 runners, but no one has done it better than you? So how cool is it to be the best quarter miler in school history, indoors and outdoors? 

With so many amazing 400 runners at our school, I am so proud and honored to be able to hold the school record. My teammates pushing me has helped me to get where I am today. I am very excited to see what we can do in our 4x400m relay this spring because my teammates are so talented.

What has been the biggest difference between yourself last year compared to this year when you ran 58.49 indoors? What specifically do you feel has enabled you to drop your time by over a second in the 400, and also to run a PR of 7.43 in the dash? 

The biggest difference I think is commitment and heart. Ever since I started track, I knew I loved it. But until this year, I balanced club soccer with track. This year I decided to focus only on track and ever since I have seen my times plummet. A big thing my coach, Daniel Doherty, has always stressed to me is that I have to go into races with a winning mindset, knowing that I can hold my own against girls. Switching my mindset to this instead of my previous mindset where I assumed other people were faster than me has also played a large part in decreasing my times and building my confidence as an athlete.

What kind of times would you like to hit the rest of this season and this outdoor season in the 100, 200, 400? What are your biggest goals? It sure seems like you have the potential to get under 55 this spring?

I am not sure what 100 times I would like to get this season after running a 12.71 and not running one since, but I am hoping to get sub 12.5. I am looking forward to getting my first sub 25 split in the 200 early this spring season, and hopefully drop it to the mid to low 25s by the end of the season. My biggest goal though is to get my 400 time down into the low 55s or even sub 55. That will be an extremely hard feat, but I am willing to work so hard to get there. I am so excited to see what I can run in all of these events! 

Unfortunately, there wasn't an outdoor season last spring because of COVID-19, so you didn't get a chance to run outdoor track last spring. How challenging was that and how tough was it mentally to deal with?

Ever since high school began, being an athlete has formed a large part of my identity. When Covid came and canceled my spring season, I felt that this part of my identity had been stripped of me. Although I attempted to stay in shape by running on my own, I couldn't experience the joy of running with my teammates or competing against other people. It was tough mentally to deal with, but I also was able to take the time to explore other things I love besides just track, such as my love for science, by taking a college neuroscience course.  

What type of things did you do to stay sharp since last indoor season? What kind of training/drills did you do? What do you consider your greatest strength as a track and field athlete?

Since last indoor season, I have joined summer and fall training and have started lifting weights. In the fall, I ran more endurance workouts with my teammates and I think this has boosted my sprint endurance. My greatest strength as a track and field athlete is my ability to push myself. Even when every muscle in my body is telling me to stop running during a 400, I push harder. This leads to a lot of time spent on the ground catching my breath after races, but it is worth it. You have to be mentally tough to get your times down.

Let's get into some background, Julia. Can you tell me how, when, and why you first got started competing in track and field? Did you compete before high school? 

I started track and field the winter season of my freshman year to stay in shape and to be able to do something over winter season. I had never before even stepped on a track to race competitively (unless racing my brother in my backyard counts), and did not even know club track was a thing, but I had always had an idea that I had some speed just from playing soccer.

At the time, I had still planned on trying out for the lacrosse team in the spring with my friends, but needless to say, that didn't happen. Right away I was amazed by how much I loved running and how I was actually pretty good at it.

You really opened a lot of eyes as a freshman when you ran 56.94 to place 11th at the outdoor Meet of Champions. What did that mean to you, and did you sense that a fast time like that was coming or were you shocked?

I was absolutely shocked when I ran the 56.94 freshman year. All throughout the season I had been running low 59s until Groups when my coaches told me that because it was my last race, I should just sprint the 400 all out the whole time and see what happened. All out? I remember thinking. What are you, crazy? But I ended up having a PR of two seconds and running a 57.34.

I qualified for the Meet of Champions, and there I ran a 56.94. My legs hurt so bad after that race and I was stunned with my time. I had thought I wouldn't be running those times until I was an upperclassmen.

When would you say you had your first huge breakthrough moment when you realized you could be a very good track and field athlete? 

I think my first huge breakthrough moment that I realized I could actually be good at track was at Penn Relays freshman year, when in my first outdoor 4x4 I ran my first sub 60 split at a time of 59.08 as the anchor to win our heat and get a wheel. I remember walking off the track as the loud speaker announced my split time and my teammates began cheering. I could not stop smiling that day.

When is your next meet and what will you be running?

My next meet is this Saturday (tomorrow) in Metuchen. I will either be running the 200 or the 400.

Who is your favorite college/pro track athlete to watch and why? And what have you learned from watching them? 

My favorite pro athlete to watch is definitely Sydney McLaughlin. She has always been such a role model for me, and it is so cool to see someone accomplishing so much that went to school right around the corner from me at Union Catholic.

I have so much respect for her as an athlete and a person. She inspires me to push myself and to always remain humble and grateful for my accomplishments. She looks so effortless when she runs, and with my form, I cannot say the same yet, but maybe one day I can look effortless too. I have always admired her even before I began running track but once I started I was able to fully appreciate just how crazy fast she is.

What do you love the most about being a track and field athlete? 

I love being able to have tangible proof that my hard work is paying off. When my times decrease, I see that extra 300 in practice has paid off and that all of the sacrifices I make off the track are worthwhile. It is the best feeling also to have such amazing, talented teammates whom I can push myself with, and also watch their times decrease.

What are your biggest long-term goals in track and field for high school, and college and beyond? 

Being state champion in high school in the 400m is definitely a huge goal for me, but also a huge feat. In college, I hope to run D1, and from there, I will just see where track takes me. I still feel like I am still kind of new to the sport, so I am not even really sure what I am capable of yet.

What type of things do you like to do when you're not practicing, racing, or doing schoolwork? Have any hobbies or are you involved in any other sports or clubs/activities at school?

I am a volunteer EMT in my community and I spend a lot of time at the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad. I am also a board member of the Student Movement Against Cancer Club as well as the Yearbook club. I love spending time with my friends and try to find time to relax and watch Netflix once in a while.