The Tallest Hurdle

Knocking on the doorstep of her crowning achievement as an athlete, Chastity Pickett nearly walked away from the sport.

By Evan Budrovich

In a sport where confidence and swagger can only take you so far, Chastity Pickett speaks volumes with her heart. That pulse stems from her mother, Shernise.

A mother and role model to many — she fostered more than 15 children in her home over the last decade — Shernise was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021 at the start of Chastity’s sophomore year in Campbell University’s track and field program. A winner for 40 first-place medals and a four-time all region hurdler at her high school in Albany, Georgia, Chastity sacrificed training at the collegiate level to drive six hours each way every weekend to be by her mother’s side during treatments. What she missed in training, Chastity gained in strength.

 Chastity Pickett had the highest individual finish in Campbell women’s track history — third place in the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA Championships in Austin in June.

Chastity Pickett will enter her final year at Campbell — her redshirt senior season — already the most successful women’s track athlete in school history. In 2023, she was the Big South Conference Track Athlete of the Year, the Big South’s Indoor Most Valuable Athlete, a five-time Big South Athlete of the Week, an NCAA Championship qualifier and a first-team All-American. She holds school records in seven events — both as a sprinter and as a hurdler.

Her season culminated with a third-place overall finish in the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA Championships in Austin, Texas. It was the highest individual finish in the program’s history, earning her the title of All-American.

Going back to those drives to Albany in 2021 to be with her mother — 12 hours round-trip spent in a car — Chastity Pickett never thought twice about the sacrifice. “Whenever I’m anxious, my mom is always there for me,” she says. “I absolutely needed to be around for her. Whatever it took to make her happy and safe.”

The thought of putting track and college on hold crept into her mind, but Chastity would lean on her mother’s words to find the strength to continue. 

“We are not quitters,” she recalls.

Not only did that mindset keep her on the track, it gave her a distinct advantage from the starter’s gun.

“The way she attacks every rep and how she’s so ‘in herself’ during training, it’s something I’ve never seen from an athlete,” says Campbell Track and Field head coach Virgil Givens.

“Nobody, I mean nobody, trains harder in practice than Chatt,” adds teammate Nia Stephens. “She sets an incredible tone every time she steps on the track.”

“Chatt” dreamed of playing basketball growing up — she was an all-region first-teamer in high school and was named her conference’s defensive player of the year at one point. She’d never stepped on a track or cleared a hurdle until the eighth grade. 

But she was a natural. A four-time all-region athlete, she won the Georgia state championship in the 300-meter hurdles twice (setting a state record in the process), and the 100-meter hurdles once. She made her mark at Campbell as a freshman in 2020 at the Big South indoor championships, where she ran a personal best in the 400 meters and finished first in a conference preliminary race. As a sophomore, despite the battles at home, she placed third in the conference in the 400-meter race and as a member of the 4×400 relay team. 

That May of 2021, after months of calls and Facetime sessions — her hospital visits were limited due to an increase in health and safety protocols — Chastity surprised her mother by wearing a shirt with the message: “I never knew what strength was until I saw my mom.”

Shernise turned the tables with her own surprise for her daughter — an announcement that she was in total remission from breast cancer. Both became “an emotional bag of tears.” 

“She was so put-together on the track,” says Stephens, who ran relay events with Chastity as sophomores. “We hardly knew what she was going through. But once we found out the news, Chastity was a whole new person.”

As Chastity cleared one hurdle with her mom’s health, she found another gear on the track. She closed out her junior year with a personal best 58.73 in the 400-meter hurdles at the Big South Outdoor Championships and qualified for her first NCAA East regional meet. 

She was destined for much more in 2023.

“I was telling Chatt all summer you can run 54 seconds [in the 400m hurdles], and she would think I was crazy,” remembers Givens. One day, he said, she had a different response. “Coach, I’m going to leave it up to God and trust in His plan and your plan for me.”

As a redshirt senior (she has one more year of eligibility), Chastity qualified for the NCAA Regional meet in Jacksonville, Florida in two events. In the 100-meter hurdles, which is not her best event, she fell just short of a trip to Austin. Minutes before taking her starting position in the 400-meter race, Chastity panicked and asked one of the rules officials for their cell phone. 

The drive from Albany to Jacksonville is barely three hours, but Shernise wasn’t in the stands for the biggest race — to that point — in her daughter’s career. Joined by several family members, she was driving a rented SUV when a flat tire derailed their arrival time. They, too, sprinted in the stadium and arrived for the big race with little time to spare.  

Chastity Pickett had a big 2023, and she returns to the track this spring for her redshirt senior year. Among her accomplishments: First Team All-American (2023), NCAA Championships Qualifier (2023), Big South Track Athlete of the Year (2023), Big South Indoor Most Valuable Athlete (2023), 5x Big South Athlete of the Week School Record and school records in the 100m hurdles, 400m hurdles, 4 x 100m relay, 60m hurdles, 200 Meters and 400 Meters.

Once she heard her phone ringing, Shernice raced down the stadium steps, leaned through the gate and offered words of comfort. 

“You got this,” she reminded her daughter. “Oh my god, we were in tears together. It brought back so many memories for me, but I knew she needed me to stay calm and composed at that moment.”

At ease, Chastity responded by punching her ticket to Texas. 

Among the 24 competitors who qualified for the 400-meter hurdles, Chastity posted the 17th best time. She would have to vastly outperform her best times at regionals to even sniff the Top 8 on the big stage. According to her coach, the bright lights weren’t a distraction.

“Chatt is one of those rare kids that kind of has it all,” Givens says. “She was able to handle that environment incredibly well, ready to block out the noise and compete.”

In Austin, she set another personal record and secured her spot in the final heat. In the hours leading up to the last race of the year, Chastity thought about what was on the line. 

“I knew that I was from the smallest school competing, and I knew I had to get my name out there to be recognized more,” she says. “Coming from the smallest DI school isn’t the greatest in some people’s eyes. But it has done more than enough for me, and I believe that I am here for a reason.”

In front of a packed crowd in Austin in a nationally televised ESPN event, Pickett lined up in Lane 8 and glanced around one last time to soak it all in. It’s now or never. This is my moment. The gun went off, and Pickett exploded. All gas, no brakes. 

A 400-meter race means one full lap on the track. Halfway through, Pickett led the field. She kept pace and finished third overall with a career-best 54.86-second race, collapsing in tears of joy while pointing to the Fighting Camel logo on her chest when she crossed the finish line. 

“I always knew I was capable of doing it but actually seeing that I did it was just mind blowing,” she says. 

In the stands, her mother — who had become a fan favorite in the stands for her enthusiasm — wept. “To see her fulfill her dreams meant everything to me,” Shernise says. “I was so full of emotion and wanted to jump over that fence the second that race ended.”

Her performance, coupled with teammate Dorcus Ewoi’s fifth-place finish in the 800-meter finals in Austin, gave Campbell two All-Americans and a 31st overall finish as a program on the national level, outpacing programs like NC State, Duke, UNC, UCLA and Florida State. Chastity has since competed at the USA Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon and is poised for big things this spring. 

Her goal is simple. An individual national championship. 

“If we’re going to shoot for something, let’s shoot for the stars and land on the moon,” says her coach, who expects nothing less from his rising star.