Jesse Carlin always has been a talented runner going back to her early teenage days in Staten Island, where she could beat all the boys on her block in race.

Once she got to Penn, however, it was a matter of finding the right event for her considerable potential. And, after trying her hand at the 200- and 400-meters, she discovered that the 800 was the perfect race for her.

Now, the rest of the country knows it, too.

Carlin, a senior, won the 800 NCAA East Regional on May 31, in Tallahassee, Fla., earning her a spot in the NCAA track and field championships beginning tomorrow. Track and Field News, the esteemed publication of the sport, has her seventh on its list of NCAA challengers.

That's not bad for someone who started racing the 800 only two years ago.

"All the races are hard in their own way, but I really like the 800," she said yesterday before a morning workout in sweltering heat at Franklin Field. "I found my race. I thought the 400 was it, but you hit a point where you just can't go any faster. I did really well in it, but then it's like, 'OK, next thing.' Hopefully this is it."

Carlin, 21, went to the NCAA meet last year but did not get past the first round in the 800. She returned in March to the NCAA indoors and earned all-America honors in the 800 (sixth place) and as part of the Quakers' distance medley relay team (seventh).

She ran her personal best of 2 minutes, 5.47 seconds in the 800 on April 18 and won her regional competition in 2:05.89.

Gwen Harris, the women's track and field coach at Penn, said Carlin's competitive nature has served her well in finding the right event and excelling at it.

"Her progress is amazing," Harris said.

Carlin's training has included a commitment to weightlifting. That has helped her on the track and off it; she is a two-time winner of the Ms. Penn title, an annual on-campus bodybuilding event that raises funds for the women's track and field team.

Carlin also has been committed in the classroom, where she has been named academic all-district, making her eligible for academic all-America honors. She has a degree with a major in biological bases of behavior, and has been accepted to Penn's grad school, where she will pursue a Ph.D. in pharmacology.

For now, Carlin has two immediate goals. One starts tomorrow in the first round of the NCAA women's 800 in Des Moines, Iowa. The next comes later this month, when Carlin will see if she has qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials.

Carlin already has made the Olympic "B" standard in the 800. The "A" standard for the women's 800 is 2:01.50. If not enough athletes post that time, runners from the B list will be taken until a minimum field of 30 is reached.

Penn will have two other athletes at NCAAs, senior Stacy Kim in the women's 5,000 and junior Max Westman in the decathlon.

NCAA Track and Field Finals

Here are the athletes from local colleges scheduled to participate in the NCAA track and field championships beginning tomorrow in Des Moines, Iowa:

Men

1,500: Michael Kerrigan, Sr., Villanova (qualified 26th in 3:47.61)

5,000: Bobby Curtis, Sr., Villanova (qualified 22d in 14:02.33)

10,000: Sean Quigley, Sr., La Salle (qualified 1st in 28:03.72)

Javelin: Marco Radocaj, Sr., Villanova (qualified 18th at 224-10)

Decathlon: Max Westman, Jr., Penn (qualified 22d with 7,327 points)

Women

800: Jesse Carlin, Sr., Penn (qualified 16th in 2:05.47); Arusha McKenzie, Sr., Villanova (qualified 26th in 2:06.68)

Steeple-

chase: Liz Haglund, Sr., Villanova (qualified 18th in 10:17.12)

5,000: Frances Koons, Jr., Villanova (qualified 9th in 16:15.44); Stacy Kim, Sr., Penn (qualified 12th in 16:20.68)

Other local

contestants

Men's 400 hurdles: Reuben McCoy, Sr., Auburn (Winslow Township High)

Men's long jump: Clarence Smith, Jr., Penn State (Coatesville)

Women's 100: Juanita Broaddus, Sr., LSU (William Penn)

Women's 800: LaTavia Thomas, Soph., LSU (West Catholic)

Women's 400 hurdles: Nicole Leach, Jr., UCLA (West Catholic)

Women's 4x100 relay: Krista Simpkins, Jr., Miami

(Wissahickon)

- Joe Juliano

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.