Fresh off SEC success, Wilkinson leads Florida into NCAA Preliminaries
The spotlight has shined on Gabrielle Wilkinson since she arrived in Gainesville.
The Gators track and field star already completed a successful high school career before committing to UF as a highly touted recruit.
In her freshman season, she became the only freshman to qualify in the 800 meters at the 2019 NCAA Outdoors.
Now, the redshirt sophomore leads Florida back into the NCAA Track and Field meet, this time the East Preliminary, which begins Wednesday afternoon in Jacksonville.
Wilkinson enters prelims off the best performance of her career at the SEC Outdoor Championships last weekend. She won gold in the 1,500 meters and guided Florida to a sixth-place finish.
“My phone has been blowing up since then,” Wilkinson said last week. “It still hasn’t even hit me yet. As I was coming on my last turn, I could hear the coaches saying, ‘put the burners on.’ My whole family was there to cheer me on as well.”
Wilkinson hails from Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, a suburb north of Philadelphia. Florida always ranked as her top collegiate choice, she said, even from a young age.
Luckily for Wilkinson, Florida coach Mike Holloway felt the same way. He said he first heard of Wilkinson during her high school sophomore year and confidently landed her for UF.
It helped that Wilkinson constructed a long list of accolades during her high school career. She won the silver medal at the 2018 New Balance National Outdoors and was an alternate at the Pan-American Games, which Wilkinson said ranks as one of her favorite memories of high school.
Wilkinson said she dealt with injuries during her freshman year, but still managed to score a spot in the 800m, the first Gator to complete that task since 2006. She added that it took some time to adjust to Florida’s coaching style, but overall, she felt pleased after the season.
“We saw how special she was during the recruiting process,” Holloway said. “We just had to get it out of here.”
Wilkinson’s stress fracture and stress reactor injuries boiled over in early 2020 and forced her to miss indoor season. She prepared to suit up for outdoor season, scheduled to begin March 27 in Tallahassee, but that never happened.
She said she planned to return from her injuries early, so the cancellation of the season due to the pandemic was a blessing in disguise.
“I am so grateful for that time off,” Wilkinson said. “I was able to go home and recover fully. I was able to heal mentally and physically. I really think my body needed that time off.”
The reasons for track success are 90-percent mental and 10-percent physical, Wilkinson said, and above all, she needed a spiritual break after all she traversed through.
“It’s tough to find the balance between school and sports since track is like our job,” she said. “Things like injuries are out of our control, but it’s all about how you deal with that. For me, it was reaching out to my teammates and joining clubs. It was my support system.”
After the long break, Wilkinson entered this season replenished and hungry.
“You never know what’s going to come next. No one expected COVID to happen,” she said. “So, I was hungrier since tomorrow is not promised.”
Wilkinson also said she came into the season more relaxed and confident, which led to her improved game.
That enhanced play showed immediately during the indoor track season. She earned USTF First-Team All-American honors and finished sixth at NCAAs in the 800m. She also clinched second in SECs after running the second-fastest time in program history (2:02.85).
With NCAA Outdoors approaching, Wilkinson said she hopes to earn another showing in the 800m.
“I’m just going to continue to work hard, train hard,” she said. “That’s all I can do, well besides having fun.”
Holloway will be right alongside Wilkinson, pushing her to get better.
“By no means has she reached her full potential,” he said. “She has to get faster and stronger if she wants to accomplish her goal of being the best middle-distance runner in America.”
NCAA East Preliminaries continue through Saturday. Outdoor Championships commence June 9 from Eugene, Oregon.