At one time, D’Liyah Austell ran at secret practices kept hidden from her mother. Now, the Brunswick High graduate is set to run amid the undying support of her family and friends at Fort Valley State following a signing ceremony Friday in the high school’s gym.

Austell has been a steadying force for the Pirates’ girls track and field team throughout her prep career. She ran straight into a leading role for the team as a freshman, and continued to push the bar higher over her four years.

As a senior, Austell ran a program record 400-meter time of 1:00.48 at the Harmon’s Invitational in March before going on to set a another Lady Pirate record in the 200m at 26.03 at the Region 2-6A meet in May.

She’s also a part of the program record-breaking 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams; both of which won region and qualified for the Class 6A state meet. The 4x100 team then went on to rewrite its own record at 47:88 with a third-place finish at state.

Brunswick girls track and field coach Nalgene Thomas remarked how she could always count on Austell both for 20 points at a meet and a positive attitude in any situation.

“A great athlete; a great kid,” Thomas said. “She’s actually been on the varsity for four years — always running and doing the same event, one we could count on. She’s surely going to be missed because of the many things she did for us.”

Among Austell’s support system at the ceremony was girls basketball coach and track and field assistant Maria Mangram, a Fort Valley State alumna who could provide a first-hand account of the student-athlete experience at the college.

Austell originally leaned towards attending Kennesaw State, but ultimately felt it wasn’t the right fit before choosing Fort Valley State.

“I always wanted to go to an HBCU ever since taking Coach (Jason) Vaughn’s African-American studies class here,” Austell said. “So when Coach Mangram text me saying, ‘Fort Valley is interested in you,’ and I was like, ‘Yep!’ Good.”

Austell has prepared for this moment for more than a decade; she’s been competing in the sport since she was 7 years old.

But it took some convincing to make the leap from hyperactive child to bonafide athlete.

“When I was little, I remember running at the park a lot, and my grandpa was like, ‘Well, she should run,’” Austell said. “My mom was against it obviously, so my dad used to sneak me off to track meets and to track practices, and that’s where I used to just run until one of the coaches came up to my mom one day and was like, ‘You really need to see your daughter run. She’s really good.’

“Ever since that day, the coaches that believed in me saying I was really good, that’s where my passion for track actually started.”

Since then, Austell’s family has run behind her at full speed — that much was apparent from the staunch support in attendance at the ceremony a day before one of the final weekends of the summer.

A few minutes before the signing, Austell’s aunt reminisced about how ever since her niece began running track at the kids club, she’s joked about how she plans to jump into her photo on the Wheaties box.

“They’ve been saying that for the longest — even before I knew what a Wheaties box was,” Austell said with a laugh.

Having discovered her talent at a young age, Austell admitted to feeling burdened by the expectations at one point. She now cherishes the thought of her family rooting her on.

“At first, it felt like pressure, but the older I get, it’s really more like, I don’t know how to describe it — it’s like because I have such an amazing support system, that’s what made me want to continue it,” Austell said. “There were times were I was like, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore,’ but because they had my back, that’s what made me grow.”

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