After two years at Texas, Tara Davis can count herself among both the most well-known and unknown athletes on campus.
A junior in Texas’ track and field program, Davis has thousands more Instagram followers than her school’s starting quarterback. Her tweets are seen by 23,500 followers. Another 80,000 are watching her TikTok clips. The YouTube channel that she started with her longtime boyfriend, Arkansas athlete Hunter Woodhall, boasts nearly 200,000 subscribers.
Yet, Davis has yet to properly introduce herself to the fans at Texas. Due to a series of events, she has competed only once as a Longhorn.
So Texas, meet Tara. Tara, meet Texas.
“I want to rep Texas better than anyone else has repped Texas,” Davis says.
Texas has often been referred to as Davis’ “dream school.” A Texan by birth but a Californian by relocation, she likely would have signed with UT out of high school had assistant coach Kareem Streete-Thompson not left the program. But even after a transfer from Georgia in 2019, it took awhile for Davis to make that dream a reality.
Following an acrimonious split from Georgia, she was only allowed to compete as an unattached athlete in 2019.
Then a fractured foot limited Davis to one meet during the 2020 indoor season.
And her 2020 outdoor season never got going due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I miss competing a lot,” Davis said. “I’m a different person without competition and I need that person back.”
Davis did make a brief appearance in a Texas uniform this year. At the Big 12 indoor championships in February, she placed second in the 60-meter hurdles with a time of 8.29 seconds. She leapt 20 feet, 3 inches to finish fourth in the long jump.
That 60-meter showing in Ames was 0.15 seconds slower than the time she recorded as a Georgia freshman at the 2018 NCAA indoor meet. Her jump was 13 inches shorter. Davis, though, had only resumed training a few days before the Big 12 event.
“You can only just imagine what somebody like that could do if they have a full gamut of regular training,” UT head coach Edrick Floréal later observed. That means that Davis may soon get to show what she can do in 2021, which could be a big year both on and off the track.
A three-time All-American at Georgia, Davis will look to regain her standing in the NCAA. She also will attempt to make the U.S. Olympic Team as either a hurdler or long jumper. Due to the coronavirus, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — and the preceding U.S. team trials — were delayed until next year.
Davis’ father and longtime personal coach, Ty, noted that she will now have to manage the wear and tear of two college seasons in the lead-up to the 2021 trials. Davis, however, was admittedly not physically ready for the start of this outdoor season. That won’t be the case in 2021.
“I can start over,” Davis said. “I can start from the bottom and grind all the way back up to the top instead of starting from the bottom and having to grind so hard within those two months and then trying to compete for the Olympic trials.”
Additionally, next year will likely be the first time that college athletes are permitted to make money off their names and likeness. A 2019 article by Mic estimated that online influencers could expect to make around a penny per follower. That math lines up with Davis, who estimated that she has left “thousands” on the table over the years.
The NCAA’s rules about name, image and likeness have long been a problem for college athletes. Three years ago, Central Florida kicker Donald De La Haye was ruled ineligible and lost his scholarship because he made money from advertising on his YouTube channel. Even recently, star quarterbacks like Texas’ Sam Ehlinger and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence have needed to get the NCAA’s permission to start COVID-19 relief fundraisers.
The NCAA itself conceded this spring that it had received feedback that its “current rules related to NIL commercialization are in need of modernization. The rise of social media and other digital distribution and monetization platforms has dramatically increased the opportunities for college students to make commercial use of their NIL.” Davis, who has more than 143,000 followers on Instagram, remarked that it was “about time” for the NCAA to come around.
“It just sucks when you’re a big influencer and you have all these options to gain money,” she said. “I’ve lost so much money being an NCAA athlete because I can’t accept it. It sucks sending the email saying ‘no’ because I’m an NCAA athlete.”
Davis has spent years carefully cultivating her personal brand. As a senior in high school, she made her first splash on social media when a video emerged of her breaking Carol Lewis’ 36-year-old preps record in the indoor long jump.
Later that spring, a post by Bleacher Report about her California state meet accomplishments — Davis bested Vashti Thomas’s national record in the 100-meter hurdles and Marion Jones’ state standard in the long jump, but her results of 12.83 seconds and 22 feet, 1.25 inches were wind-aided — went viral.
That brand followed her to Georgia, where she quickly found her stride. During her first indoor season, Davis was a top-six finisher in the 60-meter hurdles and long jump as Georgia won a national championship. She was an outdoor All-American in the long jump.
Despite that early success, happiness was fleeting. Her parents divorced during her freshman year. While living in Athens, she became distracted by the news of a wildfire and a mass shooting near her hometown of Agoura Hills, Calif. She didn’t feel like her coach at Georgia was sympathetic to her mental struggles.
In December 2018, Davis revealed that she wanted to transfer. Then things got contentious. Georgia would not release Davis from her scholarship and Bulldogs coach Petros Kyprianous went as far as to announce that Davis would sign with Texas before she did. (On Thursday, Georgia declined to comment on Davis’ transfer).
Davis never did get her release. So while Vanderbilt transfer Sophia Falco and former Texas A&M runner Maddie Vondra competed for Texas last year, Davis did not. Floréal said that February that following a conversation with his wife, he had an “epiphany, an awakening” about transfers and would no longer object to any athlete who wanted to leave his program.
“We take athletes from other programs and we want them to compete right away. But in return, you don’t let the athletes go,” Floréal said. “As a coach, I think that’s hypocritical.”
Davis was still allowed to compete in 2019, but as an unattached athlete. Her family had to foot the bill for entrance fees and travel arrangements. She practiced with the Longhorns but could not contact her coaches at meets. Her dad, who now lives in the Dallas area, instead served as her coach at those events.
“She handled it better than I think most,” Ty Davis said. “I probably freaked out more than she had, just chomping at the bit to have her affiliated with the team.”
After an idle 2019, this was supposed to be Davis’ year. Those plans have been delayed. With a free spring, she has split her time between Austin and Fayetteville. She’s picked up an interest in soccer and cars and has a one-year-old puppy named Milo to look after. Davis and Woodhall, a Paralympic medalist and member of Arkansas’ All-American 1,600-meter relay team, have also been working tirelessly on their online content.
A packed schedule doesn’t leave much time for moping. Davis is happy being a Longhorn. When asked if she was angry or disappointed about the past two years, she insists that she is neither. Davis, who turns 21 later this month, has moved on to the acceptance stage.
“It really made me who I am and I’ve grown from it,” Davis said. “I’ve gotten over the fact that (stuff) happens and you can’t control it. Control what you can control and let it just happen.”