Terrance Laird moved around a lot as a youth. He lost his father in his early teens, and his mother rarely had time for him, so he lived with different relatives all around Chester County.
Then, in the spring of his sophomore year of high school, he moved to Coatesville with the aunt and uncle who had adopted him. The change came too late for him to try out for the baseball team at Coatesville High School. But he wanted to participate in sports, so he emailed the track coach even though he never before had participated in an organized meet.
“He said, ‘Please let me come out for the team. I’m fast,’ ” recalled Coatesville High track coach Damien Henry. “I told him he could be part of the team when he moved into the school district.
“Well, the season began, and Terrance didn’t show up. About a month-and-a-half later, he sent me a text that said, ‘Coach, I’m sorry I’m late, but can I still be a part of your team?’ Normally I don’t allow people to come out late, but I said, ‘Sure.’ Terrance arrived on April 15, and we saw he had some potential. Because he came to us April 15, we nicknamed him ‘Tax Day.’ ”
Henry was about to watch a young man who had endured his share of struggles growing up emerge into a world-class sprinter. Laird has progressed from being a three-time PIAA state champion to an All-American at Louisiana State to a candidate for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team next month in Tokyo.
The 5-foot-7 Laird, 22, a junior at LSU, enters Wednesday’s NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., as the top qualifier at 200 meters (19.932 seconds) and second in the 100 (10.00) for the semifinals. He anchors the Tigers’ 4x100 relay team.
Two weeks earlier, in the Southeastern Conference championships, Laird broke the 19-year-old meet record of Olympian Justin Gatlin in the 200, running 19.82, the No. 5 all-time collegiate mark, and captured the 100 in 9.80, the fifth-fastest wind-aided time in college track history.
“I feel that even though I’ve exceeded my expectations, that doesn’t mean that there’s still not work to be done,” Laird said last week by telephone from Baton Rouge. “At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to win at nationals in Eugene and score points for my team so we can hopefully win the team title.
“Once I get past that date, then I’ll know if I did everything I could, or if there were some things I could have done better, like if I worked a little bit harder. I’m doing anything I can now so I don’t regret anything in the future.”
It has been quite the journey for Laird. He attended Twin Valley High School when he lived in Elverson with his adoptive parents, Samantha and Robert Oberholtzer, before moving to Coatesville. In his senior year, he transferred to Collegium Charter School in West Chester but continued to compete for Coatesville since the charter school didn’t have a track program.
“For the most part as a kid, I would say I moved around much,” Laird said, “but in the summertime I would stay with my cousins and my grandparents. I would go see family often. I tended to do a lot of visiting when I had weekends and in the summertime.”
Henry said the Oberholtzers took good care of Laird and that “everything seemed to be stable when he was with them.
“I know there were some other situations he was in prior to being with her, but at that time, during that span when he was with Coatesville and he was under my direction, everything seemed to be stabilized then,” he said.
Laird, who when asked about his mother said she “has other priorities,” lists the Oberholtzers and Glenn Johnson, whom he described as “a father figure for me since I was born,” as his parents.
The road to LSU
Laird began his college career at Penn State, where he finished second in the 200 at the 2018 Big Ten Indoor Championships. But the itch to move about stuck with him, and he was gone after one year.
“It’s just like you have a good job, you just don’t like it anymore,” he said. “I just grew away from that kind of culture and everything. I wouldn’t say it was the greatest. I wouldn’t say anything bad about Penn State. I will never say anything bad about the coaches. I just felt like it wasn’t a good fit anymore.”
He reached out to a friend, Khance Meyers, who had been successful at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss. It was at Hinds that Laird met veteran track coach Reginald Dillon, who he said “still is a very important person in my life,” someone he speaks with every day, often multiple times.
“I’ve learned to talk to him with stuff outside of track and field,” said Dillon, who is in his 21st season coaching track at Hinds. “You have to try to do that to keep him grounded. Mentally, you can get burned out, and you can have people come out of the woodwork because you’re running fast, and people that you haven’t seen or talked to in forever now come to your aid, or try to come to your aid, but not really.
“Terrance never questioned, ‘Why are we doing this?’ He just did the drills. He didn’t ask why. He just knew the point was, ‘I’m just going to do what the coach said and go from there.’ ”
In his one season at Hinds, Laird took second in the 200 at the National Junior College Athletic Association outdoor championships. Five Division I schools offered him a scholarship and, after a brief flirtation with Florida State, he chose LSU as his next stop.
For Laird, it was a perfect fit.
“I came here before the pandemic hit. We had one indoor season, and everything just kind of clicked,” he said. “I fit right in real well with the guys. I knew some of the guys before I got here, so I was with some familiar faces. Practice-wise, I fit right in. It was kind of like a puzzle piece.”
Laird led all qualifiers in the 200 (20.43) going into the 2020 NCAA indoor championships, but the meet was canceled because of the pandemic. He said the inability to race at all last summer made him hungrier, and he was focused on coming back strong for LSU this season.
LSU track coach Dennis Shaver called Laird “a very ambitious young man, a good leader by example.
“He’s very focused on doing the training just the way we want it to be done on a daily basis,” he said. “He’s good at managing. A lot of great sprinters like himself, they know their bodies pretty well, and he’s a really good communicator. So I always have a pulse on what we should or shouldn’t do each day based upon how he’s feeling.”
Laird faces a big month –- NCAA championships, U.S. Olympic Trials, deciding whether to return to LSU for his final season of eligibility. He is quick to note that his future begins on “Wednesday, June 9, at 5:02 p.m. Pacific Time” for the 4x100 relay semifinals, “taking it one race at a time, one day at a time.”
Still, he also knows there’s a lot on the line in determining his future.
“The better I run in college, the better I run now, I could possibly have a chance of going professional right into the Olympics and doing things that the average 18-year-old male leaving Coatesville wouldn’t have,” he said.
For Henry, his high school coach, the excitement continues to grow.
“When he’s in the blocks, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to breathe,” he said. “I’m not sure if I’m going to be more nervous when he’s in the finals of the NCAA championships, or when he’s in the finals to make the Olympics. I’m going to be proud of him despite the outcome.
“He’s in the [Olympic] conversation, and that’s all you can ask for. And if he just keeps doing what he’s doing and keeps listening to his coaches, he has an opportunity to be a part of that team, and that would be special for Coatesville –- the program, the community.”