Jacksonville University’s Harvey is bound for greatness
Natasha Harvey competes in the long jump at the Atlantic Sun Conference meet earlier this month.
As one of the greatest athletic careers in Jacksonville University history nears the finish line, track and field coach Ron Grigg wonders if he will ever be this lucky again.
Once Natasha Harvey completes her final long jump or sprint, either this week at the NCAA regionals in Greensboro, N.C., or at the NCAA championships June 10-13 in Arkansas, there will be a lot more to replace than her record times and distances. The near-impossible challenge for Grigg is filling the void that Harvey, a four-time All-American, will leave behind in terms of her overall impact on teammates and everyone she touched at the school.
Harvey, generally regarded by colleagues and school administrators as one of the most popular athletes to ever come through JU, cannot be measured simply on her ability to win races or outjump the competition.
Whether you spend a few minutes with Harvey or an entire day, most people feel it’s not enough. Her engaging personality, like a comfortable sit-down on the couch with Oprah, leaves them wanting more. But peeling away all the layers of Harvey’s tragic past, and how she refused to let it get in the way of her Olympic dream, helps to understand why this 21-year-old from West Haven, Conn., has been such an inspirational figure on the JU campus.
“It’s the way she leads her life; she’s the whole package,” Grigg said. “She gets it more than most adults. Just when you think she’s the most incredible person you ever met, there’s something deeper. I don’t want to sound gushing, but she’s just that kind of a kid. She’s an inspiration to watch how she handles situations.
“I’m supposed to be the authority figure by nature of being the coach, but there’s so much I need to model after her. She has perspective. She chooses to act in a way that she’s proud of the consequences.”
By themselves, Harvey’s athletic accomplishments make her a headliner. The Dolphins had never won a conference title in track and field before she arrived. With Harvey aboard, they went eight for eight in capturing Atlantic Sun indoor and outdoor championships, with Harvey accounting for 302 of the 1,327 points accumulated (22.7 percent) during that streak in six different events.
And here’s the amazing part: Harvey could have easily fallen by the wayside, allowing difficult family circumstances to impede her path to greatness. She passed up scholarships to Penn State and Clemson to come to JU, stayed in Jacksonville after her half-brother was murdered, graduated cum laude with a 3.563 grade-point average, served as president of the student-athlete advisory committee, and was the first person in her family to attend college. It’s all part of Harvey’s fascinating journey.
“I had to reverse it,” Harvey said. “I had to not allow everything to destroy me.”
Where “everything” begins is probably when Natasha was 9, living in New Haven, Conn. A never-identified arsonist sent her house up in flames as she was sleeping.
The firefighters were amazed that all six people – Natasha’s parents, along with her three siblings – got out alive. Natasha nearly died because the rest of family escaped and forgot about the little girl, who had to be rescued at the last second by her oldest half-brother, Carlos Ashe.
“In panic, they just escaped while I was asleep,” Natasha said. “I remember [Carlos] waking me up and saying, “Baby girl, I’m going to get you out of here.’ I watched my house burn down from across the street.”
Sadly, that fire was only the beginning of a family unit breakdown. Natasha’s father, who never married her mother, Theresa Ashe, went to live with his mother after the fire and grew apart from the family. He kept his distance from Natasha and her younger brother, Antonio, separating himself from his two kids with Theresa, leaving Natasha perplexed to this day why her father remains out of her life.
“We didn’t really ask too much of him, except for his time,” Natasha said. “I couldn’t fathom why he didn’t want to be my father, while I was trying so hard to be his child.”
If only that was the extent of the hardship. But her two older half-brothers both got caught up, as Theresa says, “with the wrong crowd,” and paid a heavy price for it.
In December 1996, at about the same time of the fire, a gang-related murder in New Haven led to the conviction of Carlos – in a second trial, following a mistrial – and three others on four counts, including murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Carlos, a child by Theresa’s first marriage, remains incarcerated.
During Natasha’s freshman year at JU, just as the indoor track season was beginning, her other half-brother, Steveland, was shot and killed near an uncle’s house. While Natasha went home for a week to comfort her grieving family, she also had to cope with the pleas of Antonio – whom she helped raise while Theresa worked a job at a Walgreens – to either stay home or transfer to a school closer to West Haven.
“It was a huge deal for me to be so far away from my family,” Natasha said. “And now, the family was disrupted [by Steveland’s death] and [Antonio] felt alone. It was hard for us to get through it.”
But that’s the remarkable part of Harvey’s 12-year road to get to this point. Somehow, through her faith and the support of Theresa, Antonio, several coaches and JU colleagues, she managed to get through a fire that destroyed her home, then having her family being ripped apart because of some questionable choices. Antonio, an accomplished dancer, is now a high school junior who has been invited to participate in an elite summer program at Wesleyan College.
“The thing about Natasha is she’s never going to give up,” said her mother, Theresa. “When Stevie got killed, and my other son was incarcerated, for her to leave [to go back to JU] was hard. But she understood she had to make her own life.
“She had to deal with a lot of stuff on her own. But if you don’t learn how to push past the difficult times, you’ll just be miserable because you wouldn’t be able to function.”
Natasha is quick to credit God and her coach at Career (Conn.) High, Kareem Jackson, with the guidance she needed to make sure that her potential as a track athlete and student wasn’t wasted. Harvey remains close to Jackson and his entire family because they treated her like one of their own.
“[Jackson] played a man in my life who would accept me as his own daughter,” Harvey said. “I’ve just recently found a freedom and peace with the fact my father hasn’t been there, but God has taken care of me. He has given me great men in my life to fill the void that my father couldn’t or wouldn’t fill.”
No matter what personal adversity she battled off the track, Harvey has pushed herself to excellence. She has won 22 different events at the A-Sun championships. She finished second in the long jump last year at the NCAA outdoor meet with a personal-best leap of 21 feet, 10 inches, beating out eventual Olympic bronze medalist Blessing Okagbare from Nigeria.
Except for a bulging disk that has flared up recently, which has limited her weightlifting regimen, Harvey is feeling uplifted. Natasha smiles at the memory of receiving her college diploma on May 2, with Theresa and Antonio in attendance.
And when someone asks her about what looks like an engagement ring on her left hand, Harvey can hardly contain her joy. For the record, it’s not an engagement ring, but a “promise ring” that she recently bought for herself. This is how she explains its significance.
“It’s a covenant between me and God,” said Harvey. “It’s my promise to him that I would save myself and stay in covenant until whoever it is that he’s saving for me. I’ve laid it down. I don’t want to say I’m picky [about what she wants in a future husband], but I am. He has to have a relationship with God and be driven, or we won’t mesh well. He has to have goals and a plan in place about how he wants to achieve them.”
Harvey has had a plan in place for her future ever since she long-jumped 21 feet for the first time as a JU freshman. She will move to the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif., in October, and depending on how she fares at the NCAAs (Harvey is competing in the long jump, 100-meter hurdles and 4×100 relay), Harvey has a clear vision about where she hopes track can take her.
“I don’t need a lavish life,” Harvey said. “I’d like to take care of my mom and hope to have a shoe contract that will allow me to do that. I do have a passion to be part of a mentoring program for girls, something where I can help them have a life of self-respect for themselves and to take care of their bodies.
“The plan is to be part of the Olympic training program and see where that takes me. The 2012 Olympics [in London], that’s where I want to be, contending for a spot on the [medal] podium. I know I have what it takes to get there.”
Looking back at where Natasha Harvey has been, two things seems pretty certain: She will live a life of fulfilled promise and leave a favorable impression along the way.