Arizona track athletes see value in staying home for school
Most student-athletes at Division I schools don’t generally end up competing for their hometown university, and they might not even stay within their home state. For two University of Arizona track and field sprinters, that is not the case.
Diana Gajda, a redshirt senior, and Neysia Howard, a freshman, are Tucson natives. Gajda attended Salpointe Catholic High School, where she was a first-team All-State honoree her senior year and competed at the Arizona State Championships her sophomore and junior years.
Howard attended Tucson Magnet High School and placed second in the 2017 State finals in the 200 meter race and long jump, as well as third in the 100 meter race.
Both athletes credit their parents’ running backgrounds to their success and love of the sport.
“My parents ran for Poland, but they were distance runners, which was the funny thing. I was the oddball,” Gajda joked. “Everyday things just showed how their hard work from past years in track overlapped into their daily life, and that kind of rubbed off on me.”
Howard’s father was also a runner and ran for Arizona under head coach Fred Harvey, just as his daughter does now.
“My dad coaches now, and he’s one of the most dedicated people I know. He sees the potential in me more than I do, and more than anybody else in my life,” Howard said.
Both Gajda and Howard agreed that staying home for college, especially as an athlete, has its benefits.
“The environment Tucson provides, it’s not high-stress or anything. I’ve lived all throughout my college career with my parents, so it’s kind of comforting in a sense,” Gajda said.
Howard added, “being at Arizona means a lot to me, just because I’ve been wanting to run for the school since I was little. The fact that my whole family gets to come out here when they want and just see me run is great.”
Assistant coach Francesa Green talked about the strong dynamic between the experienced sprinter and the rising star and how they have developed as athletes in the short time they have been at UA together.
“Diana’s been a role model for the younger athletes, especially for someone like Neysia, being from Tucson, being able to really help her in her new path,” Green said.
Speaking about Gajda, she continued: “Every year she learns a little more about herself and what she’s capable of. It’s been such an honor to coach her, because she works so hard.”
While Gajda looks to close out her career at Arizona this spring, Green commented on what may be to come in Howard’s bright future.
“I think, based on her work ethic and just who she is, I mean, the girl can be someone who breaks school records, makes it to the national meet and does really well. With what she’s doing right now, I just want to see her keep growing and becoming the best athlete she can be.”
Gajda and Howard recently competed in the Willie Williams Classic hosted on the team’s own track, which is Howard’s favorite meet.
“Even before high school, I would always come and watch this meet, then in high school, I won the 200m four years in a row … I just won a lot here,” Howard said.
Howard competed in the meet for her first time as a collegiate athlete, while Gajda competed for her ninth time at the event — her last as an Arizona Wildcat. Gajda’s experience with the invitational comes from the fact that she competed in the high school section of the event while at Salpointe.
This year, Gajda helped the Wildcat relay team place sixth, while Howard got to show off her blooming skills on several events. The freshman placed first in the 200-meter dash, second in long jump and fourth in the 100-meter dash.
Gajda and Howard will compete next on March 22 at the Aztec Invitational in San Diego.
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