From AUT University To NCAA Champion: Life As A US Student Athlete
In June 2014, I sat in the library building at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in New Zealand. For some reason I began to get distracted from my homework by thinking about what studying and training in the US would be like. I decided to start looking up a few colleges online and just over 2 years later, I was standing with my college team on a podium in Terre Haute, Indiana after we just won our school’s first ever NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association) team title. A curious moment turned into a life changing experience. Here is my exploration of life after that curious moment. Oh, and I do apologise, it’s long; very long.
As a runner there is a certain allure to the US to compete among some of the best up-and-coming athletes in the world. The collegiate system that the US has set up is like none other. This is, I believe, the closest thing someone can get to receiving similar benefits of a professional athlete without actually walking away with money in the bank. As good as the system can be, it can also chew you up and spit you out; dashing hopes and dreams of those who thought they could have made it in this blood bath of a sport. The number of people who ultimately go pro at the conclusion of their college days is dismal in comparison to the numbers wishing to do so. As much as the sporting side is enjoyable, the academics need to be taken seriously. In a sport like running, the money post college is scarce and the career is often short, so that degree needs to be treated as if it is going to be more than just a piece of paper one day. That may seem like a silly comment to make, but with all the trainings and travel that goes on within a semester it is hard to prioritise the studies the way they should be.
Thankfully, I love what I study. After completing two and a half years of a criminology degree at AUT in New Zealand, I stopped this in its tracks a semester short of graduation to focus on moving overseas. This decision to stop my degree was mostly based off poor advice, but appropriately done, I could work for five months to save up for my plane ticket to a whole new opportunity in the land of the free; as an American may put it.
I arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona, stereotypes in hand, thinking that I knew this country better than a local since I had, as with many others in the western world, been brought up by the US film and entertainment industry. This liberal bubble in a conservative world greeted me with a foot of snow and a sinking feeling in my stomach that this mountain was going to be my home for the next twelve months. Maybe it was the cold or maybe it was the lack of oxygen at 7000ft, but before I knew it I felt as though this place was my home. Moving to another country is a daunting task, however I had the benefit of being forced into a social circle and for the duration of my college experience I would be labelled as a student-athlete of Northern Arizona University (NAU).
Being a student-athlete does not suddenly make you cool like being a Football player or cheerleader suddenly makes you cool, but when you are on, arguably, the best team that your college has, it is a start. For anyone who has ever seen a US college based film, you will understand the attraction to being a ‘jock’ as they like to put it. Coming to NAU and seeing the big football players, the athletic cheerleaders, and the assortment of band folk really reinforced my perception of this area of US college life. Runners don’t get too many of their own films so it is hard to have a pre-held stereotype of the typical collegiate runner. If I can create one it would be a socially awkward, pain thriving, starving, human being who has more in common with a prehistoric human than that of their classmates.
The benefit of being a runner is that I have to treat my body as a temple so the week to week parties are a no go in season. Maybe that is not a benefit come to think about it, but it is the reality. As a team, when we have the opportunity to let loose we pounce on it as if our life depended on it. The annual cross country party usually provides the team with enough juicy stories to last a semester or two. Runners are a unique bunch of social misfits who utilise too much energy training and not enough celebrating; regardless of the occasion. The atmosphere on the NAU cross country team feels like a boys night out everyday of the week. The constant joking and relaxed style of the team would give the illusion that we were just there for the fun of it. That is until you see us in workouts.
Being an athlete at a division 1 college is not always fun and games. I can confidently say that I have never trained harder or been more driven in pursuit of my goals then I have been since arriving in Flagstaff. There are high expectations on each member of the team and each person’s performance can either have a positive or negative impact on the team as a whole. This can serve as a form of motivation when it comes to the hard training days. Competing in the collegiate system is a lot harder than I had ever envisioned. There are world class athletes that you get to toe the line with. These are potential future Olympians or in some cases, current Olympians. The level of competition is a step up from what I had been used to and this was a shock when I first started racing. With harder competition comes more preparation and, as I found out, harder work.
Workouts are that one day of the week which I look forward to until they actually arrive. It is easy to pump yourself up prior to a workout and have absolute confidence that you will make it through it. Once the day rolls around and you spike up on the track or put on your flats on a trail, a different frame of mind is required. As a team we love to joke around and enjoy this collegiate experience while it lasts. One of the times when we are not joking is when we start a workout. This is the time when champions are made; it is the time when no one is looking. It is vital that as a team we support each other through these days because they can break you down physically, mentally, and emotionally. Pushing your body to its limits and then trying to push it just that little bit further is absolutely draining. Doing that at 7000ft can be soul destroying, if you’re struggling to imagine what this might be like; think about exercising whilst breathing through a straw. Looking around as you approach the final set and seeing the carnage of drained bodies from left to right is motivating. It is motivating because these guys are putting themselves through hell for me so the least I can do is the same for them.
Living in the US and more specifically Arizona, I was put in a position where I had to drive on the opposite side of the road and did not have to wear a helmet when I was cycling anywhere. I tried the no helmet on my bike for a while, but it took the observation of one bloody bike crash to revert my ways. Safety did not appear to be a number one priority when I noticed the loose open and concealed carry laws that Arizona has in place. No helmets and guns everywhere, what had I got myself into?
The difference in workload between AUT and NAU can best be described by putting it as such; at NAU the work is easier, there is just more of it. There are a lot of little tests and assignments that are required which often count toward a small percentage of my grade. This is in contrast to AUT where there were only a few big assignments for each class but they expected a lot higher quality of work. I would argue that AUT forced me to challenge myself more and NAU has forced me to work more. In saying that, my experiences have not come solely from listening to a lecturer talk at NAU, but also from in class dialogue between students and lecturers as well as talking to people about degree relevant topics outside of the classroom.
One of the many benefits of being a student-athlete is institutional excuse forms. This is an extract from the holiest text that states how I do not have to attend class for a specified period of time because I will be travelling with the team. All exams or in class assessments over this specified period of time must be moved around at my convenience. On my first thanksgiving, I gave thanks to these beautiful pieces of paper and hoped that one day I could take one home to share their magic with my own people.
The path to an NCAA national title is anything but smooth. NAU had never won an NCAA title before in any sport so I do not know what made us think that we could be the first team to do it. Since I arrived on the cross country team the goal was to win at nationals. No ifs, no buts, that was the goal and either try to help the team achieve it or leave. This season was not going to be like any other though. At the start of the year our coach announced that he would be leaving the program to move to Texas with his wife and son. This was not an easy piece of news to take but because of the selfless nature of his decision there was no animosity towards him for doing what he had to do. Our coach would take us through to the end of the cross country season and then he would be gone. So as a team we knew that we had to make this season one to remember.
The season started out like any other with a few warm up races to get things started. Our first big race was the Wisconsin Invitational. This race consisted of some of the best teams and individuals in the country. A couple of weeks before we were due to head to Wisconsin, the coaches poll ranked NAU cross country as the number 1 team in the nation. This was weird because we had not really done anything up until that point, but we knew now that we had to show the rest of the country why we deserved that ranking. The atmosphere at Wisconsin set the precedent for the remainder of our season. We joked around during our pre race meeting and then lined up the next day ready to fight. The team showed an amazing amount of strength and depth that saw us win the team title in convincing fashion. This was why we were ranked number 1.
Next we headed to Idaho for our conference meet. The idea here was to get a good workout in, perfect score, and in doing so - win the team title. A fairly ambitious goal, yet achievable considering how we ran a month back in Wisconsin. In cross country you have eight individuals who make up a team, seven race, and five score. A perfect score would be to have all five runners cross the finish line before the first runner from another team. At our conference we wanted to perfect score, but instead we put six of our runners ahead of the first from another team. This was the first time that this had happened in our conferences history. Two weeks later we headed to Utah for our regional meet. Here we were lining up against the number two ranked team in the nation. Without flinching, we won the regional meet and went into the nationals as the number one ranked team in the nation, as an unbeaten team, and as a team hunting our school’s first national title.
For this whole season the pressure had been there but we never really acknowledged it. When we touched down in Terre Haute, Indiana we could not ignore the pressure any more. Not only were we the favourites, but we also had the emotional attachment to the fact that this would be our coaches last race for NAU. There was something about the atmosphere at this race that was different to all the others. We were here to do a job and we did not want to leave until that job was done. NAU sent out a videographer to catch the experience, they sent out people from our sports department, and even our university President. Everyone who was anyone was there ready to witness history. Now all we had to do was make it happen.
We got to the race where the wind chill factor was feeling like -5 degrees celsius. As a team we lined up together, looking up the long straight of where the carnage will ensue. This is the last moment where we can comfortably stand side by side until the race is over. As the gun went off, the adrenaline flowed. We were racing for our coach, our school, our town, and of course each other. Every single one of us fought to the very end only to believe that our national title hopes were gone. It was an agonising wait to find out the results, wanting to know if we had come in second or third. Much to our dismay, the results were in and NAU cross country for the first time in our schools history; in our coaches last season at NAU; brought home an NCAA division 1 team title trophy. Seeing the raw emotion of the moment really encapsulated the enormity of the task we had just completed. It was a perfect end to a whirlwind of a year. The one thing I have to be most grateful for about my experience is how i dared to be curious. My moment of curiosity in June 2014 translated to being a part of a national championship team. I am looking forward to where curiosity takes me next.
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