The throbbing in Kelli Hermes' right knee was nothing compared to the dull ache in the pit of her stomach.
Hermes prepared for her third and final attempt in the preliminary round of the triple jump at the Southland Conference Outdoor Championships in Lake Charles, La., with the realization her track and field career could be coming to an end.
"I knew I needed a big jump to even make it to the finals," she said. "I was praying that I would make it."
Hermes took off down the runway like she had so many times before, approached her mark and went into her jump.
She landed exactly 40 feet away - good enough to win the conference championship.
Hermes not only captured her first individual title, but also celebrated Stephen F. Austin's 10th consecutive indoor and outdoor team championship, and she was a part of eight of them.
"It was just a constant desire to improve," Hermes said. "I wanted to beat what I did and better my mark."
Hermes has graduated from Stephen F. Austin with a degree in economics after accumulating a 3.8 grade-point average.
She returned to Nacogdoches, where she shares an apartment with sister, Katie, who is also a student at SFA, after the meet.
Hermes was hoping to train for the West region preliminary round of the NCAA Outdoor Championships at Mike A. Myers Stadium in Austin but missed qualifying by a half-inch.
Despite the disappointment, the preceding four years have been a labor of love for Hermes, who graduated from Memorial in 2009.
"I've enjoyed every minute of it," she said. "I've had the best teammates and the best coaches. I love all my professors. It's more than anyone could ask for."
Hermes earned a track and field scholarship to SFA after qualifying for the state meet in the triple jump during her senior season at Memorial and finishing sixth with a mark of 38-1.
She finished second in the triple jump at the Southland Conference indoor meet during her freshman season and appeared to have a bright future in the event.
"She is one of the strongest young ladies I've ever seen," said Ron McCown, who coaches the Lady Jacks jumpers. "She works really hard to get better every day. Her weight room power is beyond anything I've ever seen."
Hermes put in countless hours working on her approach and the different phases of her jumps.
She has an overall best of 40 feet, 5 1/2 inches.
"The triple jump is one of those events you have to become accustomed to," Hermes said. "You get better at it every day. You have to get used to each of the steps. It's kind of a muscle-memory thing."
The hard work took its toll on her knee, which she hyper-extended during her sophomore season. She continued competing, which led to issues with the cartilage and meniscus, and she wound up with what is known as "jumper's knee."
Hermes spent a lot of time this season in the training room, icing her knee and going through rehab. Her workouts were adjusted according to how the knee felt.
"Kelli is an extremely tough young lady," McCown said. "She did what the trainers told her to and fought through the pain. She never mentioned it once at the conference championships."
Hermes finished third at the indoor conference championships, but struggled through the outdoor season.
She often wore a brace and had an extremely difficult time going up stairs.
But there was no doubt in her mind that she would compete at the outdoor conference championships.
"I never thought about not jumping. Not once," she said. "It was tough, but it would have been tougher if I had not known how the season would end up."
Hermes has considered a career in public relations, but hasn't ruled out following the path taken by sister, Kristi, who tripled jumped at Memorial and Sam Houston State, and coaches at Anderson-Shiro High School.
"I've thought about it a lot recently since this is my last season," Hermes said. "I've been involved in athletics my entire life."
Hermes will leave Stephen F. Austin as a conference champion and with the respect and admiration of her peers.
"There is not a more deserving athlete than Kelli," McCown said. "She's been close throughout her career, and she's been a conference scorer nearly every championship meet.
"What better way to close out your career than with a conference individual title. SFA never lost a conference track and field meet during her career. How many athletes can say that?"
Mike Forman is a sports writer for the Victoria Advocate. Contact him at 361-580-6588 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.