Jackie Ansong leaps over a hurdle for the Rowan University track and field team. (Photo courtesy of Rowan University.)

When Derick “Ringo” Adamson recruits an athlete for his Rowan University women’s track and field team, he is not interested in how much they already know, but in how much they still can learn. He knows it sounds a little crazy, but the veteran coach asks his prospects if they have ever washed dishes the old fashion way, with a sponge, detergent and dish cloth.

“The sponge is the cloth that soaks up the water,” Adamson said. “That’s the key right there. If you get up every day, come to practice and go to class, that brain is like a sponge. It soaks up knowledge and you learn as much as you can.”

Adamson found the perfect example in Bordentown High graduate Jackie Ansong, who is being referred to as a sponge for symbolic purposes only. After all, a woman who has been a runway model at New York Fashion Week for the past three years can hardly be compared to a soggy cleaning utensil.

Her mind, however, has soaked up the wealth of information Rowan’s staff has to offer, making Ansong the top 400 meter hurdler on the Profs this spring.

Entering the Larry Ellis Invitational at Princeton on Apr. 20, Ansong ranked 33rd in NCAA Division III in the 100 and 400 hurdles with times of 15.08 and 1:04.50. She is also on the 4×400 relay team that had the nation’s 17th best relay time (4:00.94). Her mark in the 400 hurdles is a team best.

In the season’s first month, Ansong won the 400 and 100 hurdles at Widener’s Danny Curran Invitational, and took first in the 400 hurdles at Rowan’s Oscar Moore Invitational. She also had a strong showing at Moravian’s Coach Pollard Invitational, where she ran her personal best time in taking third in the 400 hurdles.

“I must say she’s one of my greatest finds among the bunch I have here,” Adamson said. “When I first saw her and talked to her, I really liked what she had to say. She came here and what she’s doing now is unbelievable.”

It is only Ansong’s second year of doing track after a four-year hiatus from the sport. She graduated from Bordentown in 2012 as the school record-holder in the 200 meters (and is now fifth), 400 meters (now fourth), and 400 hurdles (now second). She is also second all-time in the 100 hurdles.

“When I left high school, I always told myself I would go back to track,” Ansong said. “I didn’t know when, but when I came here it actually happened.”

Ansong hails from an athletic family, as her sister Michelle was a strong track performer and brother Manny was a standout on the Scotties’ basketball team.

“My sister was really good at it,” Ansong said. “I thought I would do really good too, because of her, so I did it.”

Ansong also played basketball at Bordentown, which is the sport she took up at Rowan College at Burlington County. RCBC did not have a track team but she wanted to stay active so she played hoops and had a nice two-year career.

Upon arriving at Rowan in the fall of 2016, she filled out a questionnaire to play both basketball and run track.

“I only heard back from Ringo so I just pursued that,” Ansong said. “This year I did hear from the basketball coach but I just stuck with track. Ringo told me I should just stay with it. I’m glad I did. I’m enjoying it, a lot.”

Going back to the “sponge” theory, Ansong was Adamson’s dream recruit because of her high ceiling. The coach had seen Ansong during her freshman year while recruiting another Scottie, but lost track of her after that. Upon receiving her email, Ringo checked out her times on nj.milesplit and was impressed.

“She’s from a little tiny school, and that’s nothing against those coaches, they have limited resources to work with,” Adamson said. “If you can do some of those things, run as fast as she did coming from a school that is not known for track and field, now I know I’ve got something. If I teach you what I know, you’re just gonna explode. When you’re taught heaps of stuff, you see some of these top runners leave high school, go to college, and struggle like the dickens because there is limited room for improvement left.

“She needed a lot of work, and that’s the part I like. She went to Burlington Community and did nothing with track. I mean that as a positive because you’ve just been dormant for a while. The first thing I worked on was her endurance, she needed to learn how to think and be a runner. It was for no particular event, we just wanted the body to be conditioned first. My whole thing is if I can get you fit from head to toe, I’m gonna be able to do a whole lot of things with you event-wise.”

That has led to Ansong doing the 100 and 400 meters (although she finds sprints boring), and next year she could be doing high jump as well. But Ansong is the first to admit she needed work when arriving at Rowan.

“It was really hard, I lacked in a lot of things,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of good technique, but when I got here they taught me the right technique. Last year I didn’t have a lot of speed work and I wasn’t really strong with the hurdles. I kept beating myself up over it.”

After an uneventful indoor season in which she was still getting re-acclimated to track, Ansong earned a New Jersey Athletic Conference Rookie of the Week award during the spring season and was also part of the school record-setting shuttle hurdles relay. Their time of 59.52 at the Penn Relays was Division III’s fastest time in 2017.

Over the summer, Ansong dedicated herself to getting stronger and faster, “because I didn’t want to be a disappointment to the team.”

The work has paid off. In the indoor season she finished sixth in the 60 hurdles at the NJAC championships, seventh in the same event at the All-Atlantic Region Conference Championships and second at the St. Joe’s Winter Invitational.

This spring, she is not only winning hurdle events, but consistently dropping her time in the 400.

“I’m looking at those 400 hurdles and every attempt this year her time just keeps going down,” Adamson said. “I think what makes Jackie really good is, a lot of it has to do with her culture and upbringing. Being from Jamaica, there’s a thing ingrained in us called discipline and commitment. You never turn around and you never give up. You fight like the dickens.

“In my heart, I feel any sacrifice will lead a human being to greatness, but convenience will lead them to collapse. That’s a mentality she has.”

Ansong and Adamson are both hoping Ansong can qualify for the NCAA nationals in the 400 hurdles. The top 22 times make the cut and Adamson feels that should be around 1:02.

“She’s very close,” the coach said. “We’re just now in April, and at the rate that she’s going and running, oh yeah, she’s right at the door.”

She has already walked through the door when it comes to modeling. A junior academically and sophomore athletically, Ansong is majoring in psychology with hopes of becoming an occupational therapist. She plans on going for her masters at Rowan so she can use her senior year of track eligibility.

But she has not ruled out looking into further modeling gigs. Ansong first started at age 20 when her church pastor encouraged her to take a shot. She went to an audition for New York Fashion Week, and had what it took.

“You bring in a head shot, you fill out this paper and they give you a number,” Ansong explained. “They call in a group of numbers, and they call you into this room. They have you walk for these designers, and if the designers want you, they pick you.”

Ansong said she may look into print modeling in the future, as well as continuing to walk the runway.

Until that time, however, she will be a walking, talking model of a sponge.