Shamia Lassiter has a tiny cross tattooed close to her heart, but a tattoo on the back of her right shoulder also provides inspiration.
It’s her mother’s name, Linda. Shamia had it done a few years ago, appreciative of her mother’s love and encouragement, and also a reminder of the promise she made to her mother to be the first in the family to graduate from college.
Lassiter, 22, is a senior on the St. Augustine’s University track team and one of the stars for the Lady Falcons, who, like the St. Aug’s men, are ranked No. 1 in NCAA Division II. But there was a time when she was not sure she would be in school this spring, much less competing.
Just a few days before last Christmas, Linda Lassiter was killed. She and her boyfriend, Wayne Davis, were shot in a car in Portsmouth, Va., in what police ruled a double homicide.
“She was just going out, going to the store, telling my brother she was coming right back,” Shamia Lassiter said this week. “I was home, and one of her friends came by and said her boyfriend had died, and they weren’t sure who else was in the car. But we knew she was with him.”
Linda Lassiter was 48 and Davis, 49. Shamia, her two brothers and a sister were left grief-stricken as police sought to find a suspect or a motive for the killings.
“There were Christmas presents under the tree that never were opened, with no mother to give them out,” said George Williams, the St. Aug’s athletic director and longtime track and field coach.
Funds were raised to cover the costs of the funeral. Shamia, the youngest of the four children, said she was “thinking hard” about whether to leave home, leave her siblings, and return to St. Aug’s.
I lost my mother, so everything is different now. Just taking it a day at a time, praying, trying to do everything I was before and staying busy. I have my days, but of course I’m going to have my days.
Shamia Lassiter, St. Aug’s senior and track athlete
So many questions remain unanswered. Why her mother? Why that night? Why were they killed?
The criminal investigation continues with no arrests, said Misty Holley, public information officer for the Portsmouth Police Department.
A day at a time
Lassiter did return to school, but back on campus with her teammates and coaches, back in competition again and trying to win a national championship, she still gropes with the uncertainty and circumstances surrounding the killings, with the sudden void in her life.
“I’m still trying to handle it, taking it a day at a time,” Lassiter said. “I lost my mother, so everything is different now. Just taking it a day at a time, praying, trying to do everything I was before and staying busy. I have my days, but of course I’m going to have my days.”
There’s always that promise, the one about getting her diploma. It’s one Lassiter intends to fulfill, either this spring or in the fall semester.
“I’m the first generation for coming to college,” she said. “It keeps pushing me. I know what my mother wanted … and I’m so close. It would mean so much, just being able to say I did it for my mom and my family.”
Shamia, who is majoring in human performance and wellness, said her family is proud of both her accomplishments on the track and academically, saying, “They’re proud of me for keeping at it.”
Lassiter has met with counselors on campus, who have helped in dealing with her grief, anger and sadness. Williams has done all he can to be there for her, although noting there are times he doesn’t know what to say.
“In my 40 years, it’s the first time I’ve had something like that happen, so quick, so tragically,” Williams said. “When I first got the call, I was devastated. It was something I had to deal with myself. I had to be stronger than she is.
“I didn’t know whether she could make it or not. I asked her if she wanted to sit this part of the year out or if she wanted to continue to go, and she said she wanted to continue to go. I said maybe that’s good because all your friends are here with the track team. You’ve got your whole (university) community here.”
There have been times, Williams said, when he tried to console her, to walk with her to see a counselor.
“Early on, she would just break down,” Williams said. “She’d come to my office and just break down. I’m a track coach, not a sports psychologist.”
Despite the tragedy, Lassiter’s senior year has been one of her best, Williams said.
During the CIAA indoor championships, she won the 60-meter hurdles and pentathlon, and finished second in the long jump. She was named the co-MVP for the field events and a first-team All-America in the 60-meter hurdles.
Lassiter considers the hurdles her best event, her best chance at reaching the U.S. Olympic Trials this year. She had a time of 13.66 seconds in the 100-meter hurdles during the Florida Relays that ranks in the top 10 nationally but behind teammate Tia-Adana Belle, whose 13.47 ranks second.
“I actually fell at the Florida Relays,” Lassiter said. “I slid across the line with 13.6. It could have been a 13.4.”
Lassiter, nicknamed “Muppet,” also leads off the Lady Falcons’ 4x100 relay team, which posted 45.48 seconds in the Raleigh Relays, then third-best in Division II.
“She’s really running well,” Williams said. “I think she’s running for her mom.”
Belle’s 400-meter hurdles time of 55.82 seconds is among the best in the nation this spring, and Omella Livingston has been outstanding in the 100 and 200 meters. It’s a strong team that will go to Bradenton, Fla., later this month for the Division II nationals.
“We’ve had a good year,” Lassiter said.
Are the Lady Falcons good enough to win their first NCAA title since 2002?
“We have a goal, and we want it bad,” Lassiter said, smiling.
In her case, just one of her goals.