The Monterey Trail girls' track and field season appeared to implode 40 yards from the finish line of the 200-meter dash last Friday.
Section sprint leader Esther Higgwe was closing in on her second individual title and third overall at the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters championships on an unseasonably cold and windy night.
Then she cried out and landed in a heap on the all-weather track at Elk Grove High School. Higgwe's right hamstring had given out.
"It was heartbreaking," said her coach, Robert Longan. "She's a huge catalyst for our team."
Teammate A'Jah Love, running next to Higgwe, couldn't believe what had happened.
"I heard her scream and go down," said Love, a senior who won the race. "I wanted to stop so bad because she's such a big part of our team. Winning was kind of bittersweet."
Higgwe said the moment is frozen in her mind.
"I'm coming off the curve, I'm about to hit second gear and then I hear a pop, and I scream out in pain," the senior said. "My lasting image is seeing the other seven girls running away from me. That feeling it killed me."
Opponents who moments before were trying to beat her, rushed back after the race to see if she was OK something remarkable in what many view as a "dog-eat-dog" event.
"I didn't notice at the time," Higgwe said. "When others told me it was the most powerful thing they've seen, I was astounded.
"But we do maintain a very positive relationship with all the girls we run with. We talk, we laugh, we joke until we get into the blocks. That's when the seriousness starts."
Higgwe's outgoing, friendly personality is magnetic. She likes to draw, dance and chat. But she's also a remarkable student headed to Cal with big-picture views on life. Her dream is to become a doctor and build a hospital to help those in her native Nigeria, which she left when she was 6.
"You don't get to coach too many Esther Higgwes," said Longan, a former Woodland High football player and pole vaulter who has coached at Monterey Trail since Higgwe's freshman season. "She sees life a lot differently than most students her age."
While Higgwe was understandably despondent over her injury, she didn't stay down for long. Her mind, if not yet her body, insists she'll compete in this weekend's CIF State Track and Field Championships at Buchanan High School in Clovis.
Despite being on crutches, she hopes a novel physical therapy treatment will enable her to toss aside those implements and race in Friday's trials in the 100 meters (which she won at the Masters) and the 4x100 relay (won by the Mustangs).
"I'm just staying really positive right now," Higgwe said. "I don't believe that this is going to stop me."
Before her injury, Higgwe was considered a candidate to reach Saturday's state 100 finals. Her season best of 11.86, run at the Sacramento Meet of Champions on April 28, is 12th best in the state.
The Mustangs' 4x100 relay team that Higgwe anchors and includes Love, senior Phoenisha Schuhmeier and sophomore Ciara Levy had yet to run its best race, Longan said, despite being ranked No. 1 in Northern California and No. 7 in the state.
"We're trying to show that this little school in Elk Grove can stay up with those amazing runners in Southern California," said Love, a Cal Poly signee who also will run the 400 in Clovis.
"It must be something in the water down there because they're fast. But I think we're fast, too, especially with Esther."
Higgwe is trying to speed the healing process by reducing inflammation and pain through treatments at a Roseville cryotherapy center.
"It's like a super ice bath without getting into a bath of ice," she said.
In just two minutes and 45 seconds inside a "cryo chamber," Higgwe's body temperature cools by nearly 30 degrees.
"It's more effective," she said. "It's like 50 ice baths in one two-minute setting."
Whether Higgwe runs will be a meet-time decision, Longan said. If she can't go, senior middle-distance runner Desiree Turner will take her spot in the relay lineup.
"They're making preparations just in case I can't run that's just being smart," Higgwe said. "But I'm very confident I'm going to run Friday and Saturday. To compete at the state meet has been my goal the whole season.
"So I'm not going to let one little injury deter me."
THE 94TH ANNUAL CIF STATE TRACK & FIELD CHAMPIONSHIPS
When: Friday (gates open 2 p.m.); Saturday (3:30 p.m.)
Where: Veterans Memorial Stadium, Buchanan High School, Clovis
Tickets: Friday $10 general admission; $7 students (with ID), seniors 65 and older, children 12 and under. Saturday $12; $8
History: Notable past participants include Bobby Bonds, Ollie Matson, Tommie Smith and area athletes Carl McCullough and Michael Stember.