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Running on a Dream: Khala Taylor's decision to leave the Cal softball team to pursue track

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APRIL 14, 2014

Khala Taylor sobbed uncontrollably, tears streaming down her face. As a senior, this was the moment she dreaded for years: the end of her competitive track career. While her teammates were focused on the meet, Taylor was overwhelmed by the prospect of giving up something she had grown to love.

After committing to play softball at Cal at age 14, Taylor told herself she would just try to enjoy the three years of track she had left. But she didn’t expect to grow so attached to track. It was too late now, though — she made a commitment, and there was no turning back.

Taylor’s track career began just months before her freshman year at Great Oak High School south of Los Angeles. At the insistence of her godfather and eventual high school track coach, Desmond Lee, she began training the summer after she graduated eighth grade. In spite of having played softball her whole life, it was instantly clear that Taylor started to gravitate toward sprinting.

“She was very driven, especially in track,” says Rodney Taylor, her father. “You didn’t have to tell her to pick it up and do an extra lap or make sure she was eating right. She was driven … Now, in softball, it was a little different. I had to make her do extra.”

Although Taylor quickly developed a liking for track and even flourished in her freshman year, she was constantly pressured to pursue softball. Taylor’s teammates began accepting offers to play collegiate softball, and she didn’t want to get left behind. At home, her parents actively pushed her toward softball.

“There’s just expectations in this household,” Rodney Taylor says. “If you’re going to do something, we expect for you to go 110 (percent). The status quo is not acceptable.”

Over the course of her freshman year, Taylor talked to a number of coaches and recruiters. By her sophomore year, she made a verbal commitment to Cal.

“I was being recruited by Cal, and I basically said, ‘I’m going to go to Cal, because it’s in California,’ ” Taylor says. “My parents won’t have to invest in so much money to come see me, and it wouldn’t be such a hassle to go back home.”

After committing to Cal, Taylor’s track career blossomed in a way she didn’t see coming. By the time she was a senior, she had earned the distinction of being one of the best track athletes in Riverside County. She led her high-school team to the state meet and came home with state medals in back-to-back years. Before high school was over, Taylor had set school records for the 400-meters, 200-meters and 100-meters. Recruiters began to take notice.

“My colleagues and coaches would ask me about her, and I would tell them, ‘Don’t even waste your breath,’ ” Lee says. “I had to tell them that because I knew, because I even talked to her parents and asked them and they said, ‘No, she’s playing softball.’ ”

As Taylor began to excel in track, she started to have second thoughts about softball. During her junior year, she started to feel that she may have committed too early.

“The problem that came around was that she’s also a people pleaser,” Lee says. “Her mom and dad drove her towards softball, and she stuck to that.”

Taylor began receiving letters from different universities pursuing her for track and was approached by recruiters at her track meets. Still, she remained committed to the choice she had made.

“Being a military guy, there’s a certain amount of loyalty that I have, and once you make a decision to do something, you stick with it,” Rodney Taylor says. “She had already verballed (verbally committed) to Cal at 14 years old, so that’s where our eggs were. We didn’t want to later come off as flakes. I didn’t want her to appear as a flake either.”

During her freshman year as an outfielder for Cal’s softball team, Taylor constantly battled the thought of finding a way to pursue track. She was tormented by the thought of quitting the softball team and betraying the trust her teammates and coaches placed in her.

But she just couldn’t ignore the passion she felt for track. Throughout her freshman year, Taylor managed to stay in touch with Mike Gipson, one of the track coaches at Cal who recruited her during high school. After discussing the possibility of potentially joining the team, she was elated to learn that if she switched to the track team, she would remain on scholarship.

After months of carefully weighing her options, Taylor made her decision.

At the softball team’s end-of-the-year meeting, Taylor entered the room with her phone clenched in her hand. She began to read off a prewritten message from her phone announcing her departure from the softball team, but she was only able to get through a few words before she collapsed into tears.

“It was one of the worst moments of my life,” Taylor says.

After an impressive freshman season on the diamond — she was selected to the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team, and her batting average of .335 led the team — her decision came as a shock to everyone.

“I marvel at her for even thinking about changing a sport, because I would never do that,” Rodney Taylor says. “That’s something special that I think that she has innately, that’s in her — to make that big of a change. The average person would not do that.”

On April 12 at the Big Meet against Stanford, Taylor set a new personal record in the 400-meters. Though she has demonstrated considerable progress, Taylor hasn’t been able to replicate the level of success she had on the diamond. Still, Taylor doesn’t regret her decision.

“I just wanted to take a shot and just follow my dreams because I felt like through my life, I wasn’t following my dreams — I was just following the sports my parents put me in,” Taylor says. “I wasn’t doing a lot of things for me, and I felt like this decision was my decision and it wasn’t anybody else’s, and I don’t blame anybody for this decision I made.”

Kapil Kashyap covers track and field. Contact him at [email protected]

OCTOBER 25, 2015

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