CHAPEL HILL — For about half the race, Ceo Ways sprinted among the pack. There wasnt much separation. Then, during the final stretch of the 200-meter dash, Ways, a North Carolina freshman, churned into another gear, blew past his competitors and easily won his heat in a preliminary race at the ACC championships last week.
Ways finished in 20.74 seconds, easily qualifying for the finals. His time ranked among the fastest in school history, but afterward Ways estimated that he ran at about 75 percent of his potential.
He promised he would run his best on Saturday, in the championship, and he did finishing with a 20.53 that was the second-fastest 200 time in school history behind Tony McCall, who ran a 20.44 in 1995. Ways hasnt spent a full season with the Tar Heels track team, but already he is doing things that havent been seen in a long time at UNC.
You dont see freshman running as fast as he is, and as fast as hes going to (be running), this early, said Steve Rubin, the UNC assistant who coaches the sprinters.
Rubin helped recruit Ways from Ponte Vedra, Fla., outside of Jacksonville, to UNC, where he has become one of the most promising sprinters in the nation. Ways story has been a surprising one both because he didnt wind up at a Florida school where elite sprinters often thrive and because hes having so much success, so early.
Its not uncommon for schools such as Florida State to attract the top sprinters in Florida and beyond. Ways, though, said he wasnt heavily recruited by FSU a fact that seems to motivate him despite being just a few hours east of FSUs campus in Tallahassee.
The schools that showed the most interest in him, outside of UNC, were South Carolina and Georgia. But then he took his recruiting visit to Chapel Hill.
I came up here, and I was like, Oh, Ill get seasons if I came up here, Ways said with a laugh.
The decision has worked out. Ways has thrived during his first season, and while he has run times in the 200 that havent been seen at UNC since the 1990s, he has also excelled in the 400 and in the 4x400 relay.
On Saturday Ways also tied his personal best in the 400 with a time of 45.93, which puts him at No. 5 in the school record book. He qualified for the NCAA meet in both events. Then he ran the final leg of the 4x400 relay, which UNC won by .05 seconds over Florida State a team known for its speed in a sport built on it.
The victory in that race Ways teammates R.J. Alowonle, Kwame Donyinah and Javonte Lipsey ran the first three legs propelled the UNC men to a second-place finish at the ACC championships. It was the Tar Heels best finish since 1999 and Ways played a significant role, despite arriving in college with relatively modest expectations.
The UNC coaching staff, though, believed in Ways potential.
I think we just valued him more than the other schools did, Rubin said last week. We projected him to be a lot better than he was (in high school).
Projections can be tricky, but Rubin and the Tar Heels other coaches based theirs on things they saw, and liked, during Ways junior year of high school. Then Ways had a phenomenal senior year, Rubin said.
He smiled briefly and continued his thought: So we looked like geniuses.
There is a sense, though, that this is just the beginning for Ways. He grew up dreaming of competing in the Olympics, but in those dreams he bounced around from event to event.
When he was younger, he envisioned himself as an Olympian in the long jump. Then it was the high jump. Then, when he was in the seventh grade, he gave running a try. He said he was pretty slow until his sophomore or junior year of high school, until finally it clicked.
And then I became a sprinter, and it was like, Im going to go to be a sprinter in the Olympics, he said. Its always been a dream; I just never really knew what event I wanted to go for.
Rubin said Ways aspirations to become an Olympic sprinter are absolutely realistic. Already, Ways is running times in the 200 that would qualify him for a spot at the Olympic trials, if this were an Olympic year.
I know by the time the Olympics comes around, Ill be a junior, Ways said. And I definitely expect at least to go to trials. And then if things go how I want them to go, just make it to the Olympics.
Dominic Demeritte, a Bahamian-born sprinter who earned all-American honors at UNC, is UNCs most recent Olympic sprinter. He competed in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.
The most recent American-born male UNC sprinter to compete in the Olympics is Curtis Johnson, who ran in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Johnson remains one of the fastest sprinters in school history in the 100-meter dash, but he no longer ranks in the top five of the 200, thanks to Ways arrival.
Not that Ways believes he has arrived. He has exceeded his expectations during his freshman season, but he hopes his accomplishments are just a sign of greater things to come.
Up to this point hes just raised his level, Rubin said. Every single time. So its going to be fun to see kind of where that ceiling is.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter