FLOWERY BRANCH - For Erika Rucker, the challenge lies ahead.
The University of South Carolina freshman and Flowery Branch High graduate finished her high school career last spring as one of the top runners in the state, taking home the Class AAAA state title in the 400 meter and 800 in Albany and running the fastest times in any classification.
In January, her collegiate track and field career begins.
"It's a lot more serious in college," Rucker said while back on her old track at Flowery Branch over the winter break. "It's all self motivation.
"If you want to get better, they'll definitely help you."
Rucker, who first started running competitively in middle school and blossomed into one of the top runners in the state by her junior year, is determined to continue to get better, on and off the track.
That's why she runs even on break, working to improve her signature 400 and the 800 that she finally mastered in her senior year.
The 400 is still her best run and, along with the 1,600 relay in which she has generally been the anchor, they are the two events she feels most comfortable translating her skills to the collegiate level.
The length is regarded as one of the toughest in track, because its just about the farthest distance most runners can run at a sprinter's pace.
"The idea is to do a dead sprint," Rucker said. "And it's who can hold on the longest."
It's the perfect race for someone as competitive as Rucker, who translates that edge on the track into a desire to advance in the competitive nursing program as well, where of the 300 current students, only 200 will advance to the upper division.
Not too hard for someone who has gotten used to finishing out front, and has the smarts to do so. She pulled down a 4.0 GPA for her first semester in Columbia after finishing high school with a 3.78.
But she knows that the real challenge lies ahead.
"Next semester's going to be harder," Rucker said. "We'll be traveling every weekend."
It starts Jan. 7 in Orlando, Fla. to kick off the indoor track and field season, then transitions virtually without pause into the outdoor season which runs through June.
That is why she's happy to have a little time back home for the winter break, even if her athletic training never really ends.
Rucker still trains on the track that goes around Falcon Field, the one where she refined the skills that would turn her into a top runner.
She also keeps close ties with her high school coach, Jimmy Sorrells.
"I think she is perhaps one of the most talented athletes this school has ever seen. And to top it off, she is one of the most coachable athletes ever," Sorrells said of his star pupil. "I expect her to be extremely successful at the collegiate level. Perhaps she even competes post collegiately.
"With a talent and work ethic like hers, the potential is limitless," Sorrells added.
Rucker said that while she has thought about the possibility of continuing her career after college, first she has to get her collegiate career underway.
Before that, the South Carolina freshman had to figure out the college scene and life in the dorms.
Her biggest challenge during the just completed first semester was branching out.
When she first arrived on campus, she did stay close to the other athletes. But gradually she met students in class, and she became more than just a college athlete, she became a college student.
"I'm not totally wrapped up in athletics," Rucker said.
"I've gotten used to the scene, and being independent."
The independence also comes with a need to stay disciplined, which Rucker knows she needs to continue to be if she wants to improve as a college runner.
Because at the college level, she said, "if you don't work to improve, the coaches aren't going to force you."