The Oregon junior sprinter will return to action Saturday when the Ducks kick off their 2017 indoor season at the UW Indoor Preview. Cunliffe will race for the first time since a hamstring injury sidelined her at last season's NCAA Outdoor championships.
"It's been a rough couple months, but I"m really excited," Cunliffe said Thursday. "I feel healthy, training's been going well, and I definitely feel a lot faster than last year. So it should be interesting to see how the first meet goes."
Cunliffe ran 7.31 in the 60 meters at the UW Indoor Preview last year, kicking off a season for the ages. She finished second in the 60 and third over 200 at the NCAA Indoor championships, then was named Pac-12 women's track and field athlete of the year after winning conference titles in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay.
But Cunliffe advanced to the NCAA Outdoor championships in the 100 only, before pulling up with the injury. She watched with mixed feelings as her teammates Deajah Stevens and Ariana Washington saw their seasons take them all the way to the Summer Olympics.
"That's always been my dream, to go," Cunliffe said. "I was really excited for my teammates, but it was also kind of frustrating at the same time, because I wished I was there with them. But I feel like it made me a lot stronger and more motivated for this season.
Cunliffe focused on strength training through last summer, as she rehabbed her hamstring. She didn't resume training until the Ducks reported for their season in mid-fall, but her workouts since have been encouraging.
"She should be excited, because the testing looks really well," UO coach Robert Johnson said. "But you never know until the lights go on, so we'll see how it goes."
The UW Indoor Preview will be the debut meet for several talented newcomers to the Ducks.
Oregon's entrants include transfer Elexis Guster — a six-time all-American while at Iowa — in the women's 60; transfer Kyree King in the men's 60; freshman Hannah Waller in the women's 200; transfers Julius Shellmire and Joshua Rambert and freshmen Braxton Canady and Cameron Stone in the men's 200; and freshmen Austin Tamagno and Jack Wearian in the men's 1,000.
"We try not to make it bigger than it is," Johnson said. "You've done it 1,000 times in your life, and you've done it another 1,000 times here in practice. Just go out there and do what we do in practice, and just because there's people cheering and a gun going off, don't make it harder than it has to be."
Winter weather influenced training plans for the Ducks in recent weeks.
Senior Marcus Chambers, a Tacoma native, opted to spend most of his winter break training instead in Scottsdale, Ariz. He hopes the training sessions in a warmer climate will set the stage for a better indoor season than any he's previously experienced at Oregon.
Chambers is a three-time all-American indoors, all from relays. He hopes to contend for an individual title as a senior this season.
Johnson had the Ducks report back from winter break a bit earlier than usual, due to the looking season opener this weekend. That plan was foiled by recent snow storms that hit Eugene.
"Mother Nature said, 'Don't do things like that without consulting me first,'" Johnson joked. "So we spent our time shoveling lane one (at Hayward Field) to get in a little work before school started."