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RCC champion jumper eyes leap to four-year degree

Frederick Ellis Dashiell Jr. | 7/2/2009, 11:57 a.m.
RCC track and field coach Westley Ellis (left) is quick to praise star jumper Nia Howard (right), telling...
RCC track and field coach Westley Ellis (left) is quick to praise star jumper Nia Howard (right), telling the Banner, “People like [Nia] make you want to come to work.” Frederick Ellis Dashiell Jr.

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RCC track and field coach Westley Ellis (left) is quick to praise star jumper Nia Howard (right), telling the Banner, “People like [Nia] make you want to come to work.”

At 5 feet 3 inches tall, Nia Howard is petite. But as a Division III track and field athlete at Roxbury Community College (RCC), she stands tall.

In May, Howard long jumped 17 feet 11 inches — more than three times her own height — a distance that won the event at the National Junior College Athletics Association (NJCAA) Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships held in Alfred, N.Y.

“I set goals for myself and was able to execute,” said Howard.

The 18-year-old Dorchester native was introduced to track and field in the fourth grade at Grover Cleveland Middle School.

“My elementary gym teacher, Ms. Gooding, put me on to running,” said Howard.

Continuing her education at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, Howard looked to keep running in college. As a senior, she spoke with Westley Ellis, head coach of the RCC’s track and field team.

“Sometimes when kids go to [Boston] public schools, they don’t want to talk to the RCC,” said Ellis.

Initially, Howard had felt the same way. She was accepted into Claflin University, a historically black institution in Orangeburg, S.C. However, she quickly realized that it was not the place for her.

“It is a small school … I’m a city girl,” she said.

Howard spent two weeks on campus in the fall of 2008 waiting for an NCAA scholarship that never materialized before packing up and coming back to Boston. During her transition back, Howard applied to RCC and was accepted. She heard about an RCC track and field team meeting, and remembered her conversation with coach Ellis. Not wanting to miss the indoor fall season, she attended the meeting.

“She spoke to me about her goals and ambitions, and I knew she was an athlete,” said Ellis. “I knew immediately that I wanted to build a team around Nia.”

This past year, Howard has set records and made a name for herself in NJCAA Division III track and field. In her first collegiate jump, at Northeastern University, Howard turned heads with a jump of 17-3 1/2, qualifying for NJCAA Nationals.

“Her first jump opened eyes,” said Ellis. “People were like, ‘Who is this RCC lady?’”

Howard has found success throughout the track and field season. She won the Tufts University and Harvard University outdoor meets and placed second at the RCC indoor meet. On April 26, at Brown University in Providence, R.I., Howard jumped 18-11 3/4, a school record.

“We felt Nia made jumps that were closer to 20 feet, but were called fouls by small margins,” said Ellis.

The coach said that Howard has been good for the team, as her achievements have motivated others to do well.

“We’ve had some ups and downs on the team, so it’s good when someone has some success,” said Ellis.

Even though Howard is doing well, she recognizes that jumping is only a part of her college career. As a social science major, she is looking to complete her bachelor’s degree in psychology. She also has higher aspirations for her jumping.

“The Olympic trials are my goal,” said Howard. “I want to make it to that so I know how to prepare moving forward.”

Howard is using RCC, a junior college, as a springboard to her larger goals. After next year, Howard is looking to transfer to a Division I four-year college to complete her degree.

Even though he will likely only have her for one more year, Ellis said he is happy to work with Howard.

“People like Nia make [you] want to come to work,” he said. “I’m glad she’s coming back next year.”