It was just over a year ago when Tori Herman received the unthinkable news. Her senior season of track and her high school sports career were suddenly all wiped away. But the heartbreak only fueled her as the Hilton Head Seahawk became a Kentucky Wildcat. Just a handful of months later, she etched herself in the school’s record books and punched her ticket to the mecca of track and field in Oregon to compete for a national title.
Running was Tori’s pedigree from the start. Her mother took up the hobby after graduating college and worked all the way up to finishing marathons. Her dad also showed off some impressive stamina, competing as a swimmer at the collegiate level. The makings of a stellar endurance athlete were all there.
After running her first 5K race as a fifth-grader, Herman knew that her passion was on the trails and the track. She honed her skills at Hilton Head Prep during middle school and transferred to Hilton Head High to run under head coach Blake Bishop. From her first spring workout across the Carolina blue-adorned Seahawk track, Bishop knew he had a special talent on his hands.
“The moment that she came to the track, I just knew,” Bishop said. “I love working with kids who have that desire when they come to the track and want to know what to do to get better. I think I learned more from Tori than what she ended up learning from me.”
It was just the start of a spectacular Seahawk career for Herman. The young star was a model contribution to the program, always showing up early and staying late to get in as many reps as possible.
Despite being one of the youngest on the team, Herman stopped at nothing to best her friends and teammates no matter what the workout was that day. She strived to reach the level of those she looked up to, like Isabel Muehleman and Mallory Liggett, who both went on to run at the Division I level.
Pretty soon, the budding star was racking up the accolades. Herman delivered a breakout sophomore year for Hilton Head High, excelling in the mile and 800-meter distances. She also took to the cross country trails, but her fast-twitch muscles favored the middle-distance sprint events on the track.
The Seahawks made their way to the state championship meet in 2017, but the odds were certainly against them. Some teams brought eight or more runners to the competition. Hilton Head sent just five. They won it all. The difference was the incredible effort from Herman, who ran a brilliant 800 meters en route to a two-second victory over Daniel’s Ally Wilson, giving the Seahawks a one-point state championship triumph over the Lions.
A new track star was born.
“Everybody was motivating each other, so when it came time to race we all knew we had to play our part, ” Herman said. “We were all cheering each other on.”
The standout’s dedication to improve and build on her craft never went away. After suffering an injury during her junior year, Herman went above and beyond to support her teammates and prepare herself to get even better when it was time to return. Whether it was using the foam roller at the track or cheering her fellow Seahawks on during their workouts, Tori’s unrelenting spirit and hunger for success never went away.
But no one could have predicted what happened next. After she helped lead the cross country team to a state championship in the fall of 2019, an amazing spring glimmered on the horizon. The senior made a splash right away to kick off the campaign, winning the 1600m against a strong field at the CIU Rams invitational.
But just a few weeks later, the improbable happened. Due to the rampant spread of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, Herman’s season was suddenly taken away — just like that. But she soon realized that her running career was just getting started.
“At first, I was really disappointed,” she said. “But it almost made me more excited to start up cross country at the University of Kentucky.”
After reaching out to several big-time schools including South Carolina, Herman found her home in Lexington, becoming a preferred walk-on for a tremendous Wildcat program and reuniting with her former teammate Liggett at the SEC level.
“When I first visited, I was immediately drawn to the coaches and the team environment, ” Herman said. “Everyone was so welcoming.”
The stinging loss of her senior year only fueled her more going into the summer. She kept up her dominant form in preparation for a demanding college conference, honing her craft in distance runs and tempo workouts to stay in championship shape going into the fall.
The new environment challenged Herman and quickly pushed her work ethic and performance to an even higher level. It may have been difficult, but she loved every bit of the process, surprising herself every time she notched another personal record. Before she knew it, the hours upon hours of training began to pay off.
Herman set the tone for a wonderful career in the fall, finishing eighth in the Commodore Classic before a top-20 showing in the SEC cross country championships gave her a new PR in the 6K at 20:42. She kept the momentum going over to the indoor season that winter, placing eighth at the conference meet with another personal best, this time in the mile. Everything was looking up for a spectacular spring.
In a two-week span in April, Herman started her late-season outdoor surge, recording an eighth-place finish in Florida before a stellar 4:18.72 mile at the Joe Walker Invitational in Oxford. After another strong showing in the SEC outdoor meet with a ridiculous 16:24 personal best in the 5K, Herman set her sights even higher and made her way back to the Sunshine State for the NCAA Preliminaries.
She knew she had the chance to do something special on Memorial Day weekend in Jacksonville. By the end of the meet, her name would be etched in Kentucky track and field history.
Herman had no trouble qualifying for the second phase with a breathtaking mark of 4:16.55, good for sixth place overall. All of a sudden, a trip to Eugene, Oregon, was a real possibility. She approached the semifinal just as she did any other race, staying calm, composed, and determined. With one lap of the 1500m heat remaining, she knew that the fifth and final spot was hers for the taking. The adrenaline and emotion were running high, but Herman kept herself in the zone to the very end. When she crossed the line in 4:14.12, Herman didn’t just punch her ticket to the NCAA championship meet. She also shattered a Kentucky program record that stood for seven years.
“It almost seems surreal,” she said. “I never expected to get myself to this point. When it happened I was in awe, just one of those amazing moments.”
Her former high school coach wasn’t surprised, but that didn’t dampen his pride.
“Earning a national championship bid speaks volumes for what you’ve accomplished, but to be a true freshman and set a school record in an SEC program is truly remarkable,” Bishop said.
Herman has seen her amazing abilities on the track take her all around the country. Now, she’s headed to the historic Hayward Field in Oregon, where the legendary Steve Prefontaine set an American record to qualify for the 1972 Olympics. She’ll look to put the finishing touches on a sensational season in a storied stadium beginning Thursday.
“I’m really excited to be given that opportunity to race at that level and meet some amazing runners from other teams,” Herman said. “Ever since I’ve been in this sport, Eugene has been known as ‘track nation’ so it’ll be fun to see it for myself.”
After an undeserved ending a year ago, Herman’s next chapter has rocketed off the starting blocks. And with three more years still on tap at Kentucky, her extraordinary talent and work ethic has her on the inside track for a career filled with many more memories to come — and maybe even a trip to Paris for the 2024 Summer Olympics.
“I’m going to be in the stands over there in ‘24,” Bishop said. “She’s got everything it takes to be there.”
By Wes Kerr / Photos courtesy University of Kentucky athletics