Put Your C’s Up

I spent my first two years of college at Villanova University and have no regrets, despite the huge financial burden on my mother to pay out of pocket. My decision to go to Villanova University was one of the first decisions I ever made for myself without the approval of others. For years, I aimed for good grades to make my family proud. I did certain extracurricular activities to impress my friends. No one approved of Villanova University. The school was expensive. However, I did not care.

My time at Villanova University was fairly boring. I was the obvious underdog on the team, especially being a walk on. My freshman year roommate, Shaniqua*, was a 400m runner on full scholarship. Most of my teammates were high school state placers or high school and college All-Americans. Then there was me coming onto the team running 59 seconds in the open 400m race, which is not great and an official time of 1:04 in the 400m hurdles and unofficial summer track time of 1:02, also not great for the level of competition that I aimed to be a part of. Not only was I this no-named underdog, I was also an awkward caterpillar. I would say awkward butterfly, but I was nowhere near as graceful as a butterfly. I was still awkwardly skinny with large eyes and had a habit of saying too much about myself too quickly when I meet people. Not to mention, I come across as abrasive in introductions, which is a habit I developed from high school. In other words, I was the complete opposite of my roommate. Shaniqua was slim built like me, but was at least a B Cup in bra size. She had a slight, sexy southern accent which stood out from the majority of team’s northern backgrounds. Her skin glowed at any point of the year. Her eyes were a pretty almond shape. She had a commanding personality. She was upfront but in a way that was often comical. If she wasn’t the center of attention, she was close friends with the person who was. From freshman year, she stole the attention of many college boys, athletes and non-athletes. I was the opposite. Regardless, people’s expectations of me were likely low at this pint in my life.

As a wildcat athlete, I enjoyed most of my time at Villanova, except towards the end of my time there. Coming into Villanova, I had a lot of untapped potential. Considering I started my track career in a small private school and being a part of the first MHCA team to be a part of NJSIAA, I had done very well. I was also persistent as hell. I emailed the head coach, the women’s head coach and the sprints coach during my senior year. I visited the team and spoke with the sprints coach on an unofficial visit. I might’ve left a couple of voice mails as well. Maybe annoying was a better term than persistent. Either way, my times might’ve just made the walk on standards and the sprints coach, Coach Anderson*, gave me a chance that I am grateful for to this day.

My freshman year was okay. I improved greatly, but my standards for myself were so high that I rarely appreciated my improvements each race or practice. I was still not the best on the team, but I was consistent. I consistently gave my all in practice, and my times were consistent when I competed. If you needed a solid leg just to maintain the team’s place in a relay, I was the girl. If you needed bodies at conference championships for points or to break up the competition, I was the girl. In fact, sometimes I was more consistent than the girls who were on scholarship. This statement is not to tear down or discredit these girls’ contributions to the team. This is to acknowledge my progression in the program and how I began to value myself. Having competed at Big East conference and being a part in the coveted distance medley relay team, I started to realize I was more than just a walk on. During the summer of my freshman year, I remember talking to Coach Anderson on the phone in m hotel room during a competition in my last summer track year with Transy East. I remember discussing possible scholarships and getting the response summarized as I would not get a scholarship util my senior year. Despite this disappointing news, I came back the next year. However, my mindset was a little different.

My sophomore year a little more stressful. Realizing the financial burden this decision had on my mother and realizing I was not valued on the team the same way I valued myself, I constantly debated whether running at all or for Villanova was worth it. I went back and forth on the right decision for me. What I have learned is in times with tough decisions, God will be there to give you the right push. Two weeks before Penn Relays, one of the largest track meets held in the United States, the choice of who would run the 400m leg in the distance medley relay was between me and a recruited freshman. Villanova is based on tradition, so what can be more traditional in determining a track position than a classic run off.

I wanted to win this run off badly. Throughout the entire season, I wanted to prove I was as good and deserving of a scholarship as this freshman. She had already beaten me in indoor conference in the 500m. Tensions were high, at least in my mind. Stakes were high, high enough for me to choose to run this run off over a phone interview for a summer internship with Iron Man in Florida. I believed in putting it all on the table for track. I wanted to win, and I did, sort of.

The run off was supposed to be an all out 350m run. My sprints coach and the women’s head coach were there for the race. My coach started us at the first 50m mark and placed a cone at the final 50m mark. He yells “Set.” We get down in three point stance, which looks like the position sprinters have when in starting blocks, but with one hand down. He yells “Go” and the race is on. I was out. I got ahead and stayed ahead. As I approached the cone, the lactic in my legs built to a slow burn. My legs felt like they were moving in quick sand. The cone was approaching, but so was the freshman. I run past the cone barely ahead of the girl, but I did win.

To be honest, I did not feel great about the win. That lactic was serious. My legs were heavy and on fire long after the run was over. Immediately after the race, I talked to one of the seniors on the team and explained how I actually didn’t want to run the relay leg, especially if I was already running the open 400m hurdle race. However, I kept that thought or fear to myself. About ten to twenty minutes after the run, the sprints coach and women’s head coach approached me in the bleachers. I am not sure why, but I was conveniently alone at the time. The sprints coach explained, in his normal low volume, that first, the marks for the run off were off and I had ran a 300m race, not 350m. Second, despite winning the run off, the coaches thought it would be best to let the freshman run in the relay that’s almost guaranteed a top 3 finish in Penn Relays. I went to one of my teammates, standing on the track close to the gate entrance to the field house, almost immediately after the conversation and explained what the coaches told me. Her response was eye opening, “If they knew they weren’t going to give you the spot, they should’ve just said that.” I realized no matter how many internships I give up, workouts I complete until my legs hurt, personal records I run, I was the walk on. The spots, particularly scholarship spots, on the tam were taken and set, and although my efforts are appreciated, there was more stress caused than benefits reaped trying to fit into a program that had no room for me.

That same night, I texted Jesse. Jesse was a summer track coach that had a business of also being a college recruiter. At summer track meets, he would walk around to the various Jersey summer track teams and speak with the juniors and seniors on the team. He had a large black wallet filled with college coach cards from all types of schools. He had HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) schools, schools ranging from DIII to DI, small private school and large public schools. Not only did he have all of these schools’ contact information. He also had close kinship with a lot of those coaches from his years as a track official for summer, high school and college track meets. He was well connected in the track and field world. I caught a glimpse of his talents the summer of my senior year when he presented a list of schools willing to offer me a track and field scholarship in order to deter me from going to Villanova. Of course I rejected his options at first. Despite the rejection, he continued to root for me and celebrate my track accomplishments. However, I was not as hard headed the night I texted both him and Dwayne after the run off. I remember first texting Dwayne “Even when I win, I lose. I’m done”. I then remember the next few weeks having informal conversations with Jesse about possibly transferring.

Of course, I kept this decision to myself. Before Penn Relays, my best time in the 400m hurdles was 60 seconds, which was okay in my eyes. My internal decision to transfer did not ease a lot of the stress. Instead of placing pressure on myself to beat my teammate and training partner, I felt pressured to run as best a time I could to be recruited by the most competitive schools possible. I still knew very little about other options. I just knew I wanted the best option for me. Transferring is a tactical ordeal, especially as a walk on. I told few people about my decision out of fear of one of the coaches hearing and cutting me from the team before the end of the season. Instead, I counted the days until the end of the season. I ran a personal best in the 400m hurdles of 59 seconds in Penn Relays, placed in outdoor conference and ran 59 seconds in NCAA East Regionals first round. All the while, I was making my list of ideal schools to transfer to.

Like every year, I was indifferent and partially disappointed with my season. It is always frustrating to perform below your expectations. It equally frustrating to get small glimpses of your potential but not quite reaching it. Despite my opinions about my times and quality as a runner, Jesse worked his magic that summer as I worked mine. I had spent the entire school year searching for jobs and internships. I was proud to have gained a paid hourly internship in the USA Track and Field New Jersey office. I won’t talk too much about it because to be honest  it was a lot of boring office work in a second floor turned office in a mid size suburban two story home. The office consisted of two desks on either side of the floor and a back section with a printer. Although a lot of the work was mundane, it was nice to see the world I love from the administrative side.

As I mentioned, Jesse was working the summer to find a school for me. In between driving to and from my internship, I had colleges calling my home and cell phone every week, sometimes everyday.  I had school calling me from California to New Jersey. It seems as if Jesse sent my information to every coach in his overstuffed black wallet. One phone call I remember was from the University of Florida. The University of Florida is a part of the Southeastern Conference, where many of the top athletes in the country compete. The conference receives a lot of money and a lot of exposure. Although I was not offered a scholarship, nor was I expecting a scholarship from a Southeastern Conference school, the fact that the coaches were even remotely interested in me put my times and my performance as a student-athlete into perspective. University of Florida saw in me what I was beginning to see, a girl who’s really not great but there’s just something there with possibility. However, I denied the offer to join the Gator team quickly because I did not want the financial burden I had at Villanova.

To be honest, the process was about four years ago, so I do not remember the name of the schools that reached out to me. I remember the last remaining school choices were University of Pittsburgh, Jacksonville University and University of Connecticut. Pitt was an option because I was familiar with the coaching and the school had a freshman or sophomore 400m hurdler that I would have loved to train with. There was also a guy at Pitt that I was close to, J. Larson*. At the time, Larson was a graduate student that still competed  in the 400m hurdles for Pitt. I’m pretty sure he was interested in one of my Villanova teammates first but somehow landed on me later. I don’t mind. He was incredibly fit, over six feet tall (not knocking my short men out there. You guys are fine too), full lips and classy. He also obviously loved track as much as I did and supported my hustle to athletic greatness. Finding a guy who is truly supportive of my athletic dreams is difficult because a lot of men like the fit chick (and I don’t blame them. I mean, our asses are amazing), but they appreciate it in the same way a guy appreciates a sports car, great to look at or show off but the goals of the car ultimately are based on whatever the driver wants it to be. Finding a guy appreciative of not just a fit but also a competitive and driven woman is more difficult than it should be. But, Larson was one of them at the time. I rarely got to see him in person because of training, competing or just the distance between Philly area and Pittsburgh, which is why I wanted to run for Pitt.

Jacksonville University was opposite Pitt in many ways. First, the school was small. Second, the school was in warm Florida. Third, Pitt’s conference, the ACC, had a much bigger name. Regardless, I like talking to the Jacksonville coach, an average height white guy with dark hair. I don’t why, but there was some air of familiarity to him. I am not sure if it was his appearance or the way he spoke. Another significant difference, was Jacksonville was offering a full ride. Pitt was back and forth. I knew Pitt wanted another 400m hurdler who was transferring from University of South Carolina at the same time as me. The other girl also happened to be one of my former teammates from my summer track team, whom I knew had better times than me. Although, Jacksonville had some noticeable benefits and is a good school, something about it didn’t quite get me.

Finally, there was UConn. The first time I considered UConn, I didn’t even know it was UConn. It was outdoor Big East Conference my sophomore at Rutgers University. My team, like many other schools, usually do morning shake outs, which is a quick warm-up, in or around the hotel. One of those days we were sharing the hotel hallway with another team. By this time, I had decided to transfer but quietly eyed other schools as potential choices. Of course, I would not dare ask the other coaches or athletes anything. I remember this tall, skinny black guy in sunglasses meticulously watching this line of black girls of all shades doing drills up and down the hotel hall. I did not know that was UConn at the time, but I remember thinking, “I should be with them.” I wanted to be with this coach that looked so invested in his athletes. I wanted to be with this big group of black girls looking like a black sorority line.

When my season ended, I remember Jesse giving me a preliminary list of schools interested in me. One of which was UConn. I remember the first time speaking with Coach W. I don’t remember much of the conversation other than him asking where I was from. I have a strange accent of putting on this slight botched southern/ Caribbean accent when I talk talk on the phone to people I am familiar with. The second time I spoke with him was during my official visit to UConn. Coach W told me UConn was in the middle of nowhere and he was correct, very correct. UConn was in a part of Connecticut I didn’t even know about. The road off the highway towards the school was fifteen to twenty minutes of off road gas stations, and trees. As soon as you enter campus, there is a farm to the right, a real farm with a pasture, cows and a barn, which explains why UConn’s agriculture program is well known. I remember wearing my curly hair in an a fro hawk and wearing a form fitting long, black and green striped, sleeveless summer dress that was supposed to fall to the floor, but my legs were so long, the dress fell to my ankles. My mother dropped me off on my official visit. We pulled up to the front of the field house, a one floor old red brick building attached to a two floor red brick building which was the recreation center where non-athletes work out. Coach W met us in front of the field house and brought us through a hallway. To the left were four large blue doors that led to the indoor track. Directly ahead was one blue door that opened to a white hallway lined wit coach offices. His door was the second door to the left. The head women’s coach, Coach Matthew*, was across the narrow hall. It was a small office, enough for a long, white metal desk and a hard blue couch. His walls were lined with framed photos of his athletes in action. In the corner was a grey, metal file cabinet with this small TV on top that played non-stop hazy, shaky videos of various track meets. You could hear the murmur of girls cheering for their teammates in the background.

It was a typical recruiter visit. It might have been more boring than others because my visit was during the summer when most students have gone home. My mother and I came into his office, we talked about how UConn is great blah blah blah and my mother left the office to get me tomorrow. I remember sitting stiff on his couch watching him sort of speak to me but also stare at his Mac computer screen. He was tall, skinny and glowing brown skin. He wore a Nike fit cap with a small part of his black curly hair poking in the back. When I first met him, I couldn’t tell how old he was. He looked no older than his thirties and spoke with this youthful excitement. Even today, people who don’t know him have difficulty determining his age. On the wall closest to his desk hung a framed photo of him in a Jamaica speed suit running. The only indication that he was older than I thought was when I asked if he continued to run today and his response was “Yeah my mouth.” Knowing him, he was probably very proud of that comeback. To this day, he is corny as all else.

I left with my host, a then sophomore named Milan*, who was a 400m and 800m runner. She was also a fireball of personality, very similar to my freshman year roommate but without the summer accent and shorter. I remember hanging out in one of the summer dorms with her and her roommate, Keisha*, an unbelievably gifted 200m and 400m runner. Like Milan she was diva, one of the cool girls that typically would never cross paths with me. She was tall, thick and fit with flawless make up. To be honest, I remember little of the conversation I had with them that night. I mostly remember my time with Coach W. The next morning, Coach W gave me a tour of the campus and the School of Business. I don’t know why, but I remember telling him one of my more embarrassing stories of how when I was younger I jumped into the deep end of the swimming pool even though I didn’t know how to swim. Somehow I expected a more sentimental response from him, but no. He just laughed at me. This is how our conversations usually went. I say something sentimental, and he has some callous response. Out of the three schools, UConn and Jacksonville were the only schools I actually visited. Pitt was playing and the scholarship conversations were up and down. I visited UConn first, but wanted to see Jacksonville before I made a decision.

To be honest, the decision was not clear after visiting both schools. Both coaches wanted me on the team and promised me a full ride scholarship. The decision became clear as I was sitting in the Jacksonville airport going hoe from visiting the school. I didn’t know which school to choose and pulled my phone out to call Coach W from Uconn. I wanted to get his opinion about which school I should go to because I trusted his opinion and believed he would tell me the right thing that’s best for me. Once I had that thought, I knew Coach W was the right coach for me. I called him in the airport to tell him I chose UConn. I remember him saying “Yes!” He seemed more excited about just the unofficial announcement of my coming to UConn than the Villanova coach ever seemed while I was on the Nova team.

Around this time, I had a dream where I and a three other girls were at a track meet. The stands were full and the competition was tense. At the 100m starting line on the track, the officials were lining the teams by their heats for a relay race. I remember sitting with my teammates yelling “Put Your C’s up!” as we waited for our heat to run. That dream solidified my decision to go to UConn. It also was a fairly accurate premonition of some of my best moments as a Husky.

A student and an athlete but not a student-athlete

Spring 2016 semester has started. I have completed syllabus week and am now officially starting my second semester as a graduate student. Being a full-time student, being a TA and being a full-time athlete was a difficult balancing act in the fall semester. One would think that if someone could survive being a student-athlete for four years, there should be no difference to being in grad school for two years. Here is the difference. I am no longer a student-athlete. I am a student and an athlete. Being a student-athlete in undergrad came with accommodations that made balancing my studies and my sport possible. Because I was running for the school and using school facilities, the school in return provided resources to student-athletes that allowed us to better explain to our instructors and peers why we would miss certain classes or wouldn’t be able to hand in certain assignments on time. The Athletics Department also provided academic assistance more readily available to help student-athletes.

Buzzfeed sums grad life best with 21 photos that even now bring me anxiety to what entails in the upcoming 15 weeks, give or take. In graduate school, your social life in non-existent. Of course, I understand those with complicated majors, as I like to call certain majors, probably are already living the grad life just without the title. But there is a different mindset when coming into grad life.

It’s really that mindset that distinguishes the difference between being a student-athlete and being a student and an athlete. As a student-athlete, there is an understanding, depending on your reputation and/ or sport, that academics may not be your passion and sports may very well be the one and only reason you go to school. A former student I taught as a TA argued that college athletes should not get paid by NCAA because students go to college to hone their skills not just play sports. There is so much to say about that statement, but what I will focus on this. For a student-athlete, going to college includes honing their skills as an athlete. During my undergraduate years, I didn’t just improve in times while on the track team. I learned persistence and proper running technique and grew as an athlete. I also learned and was successful in my undergraduate classes, but it the lessons I learned as an athlete were equally as important in directing my career path.

 

But going back to being a student-athlete, you CANNOT be one without the other. You do not perform to the academic standards that the athletic department, your coach and/or the school sets, you do not compete and/or train. That simple. For some who are on scholarship, if you do not compete or train to the best of your ability and follow the rules of the sport (I leave that open to interpretation), not taking into account injuries or emergencies of course, you were not guaranteed the same amount of scholarship thus affecting your ability to pay for school thus affecting your education. As a student-athlete, education and athleticism are valued equally.student athlete

As a student and full-time graduate student, especially one with a teaching assistantship, these values and standards change dramatically. This scenario gives a better idea of what I mean. Last semester, I told one of my professors that I was an athlete, and although I did not plan on missing assignments, I did want to let the professor know in case I missed any classes for competition. The professor was understanding and told me that it is good that I was a runner because it is important to have a “hobby” outside of grad life. I cringe hearing the word “hobby” in regards to my running. But I understood why my professor would say that. In graduate school, at least my specific department, there is an assumption that those who attend graduate school share a passion for academia similar to how athletes share a passion for their sport. You come with the commitment to dedicate your time and energy to your assignments in class. You enjoy academia to an extent where research and reading educational articles are enjoyable. Anything not connected to what you are studying or does not directly benefit from your studies is a side attraction. It is something to break the monotony of studying. It is a hobby. Also, and this is merely an assumption, I don’t think professors teaching graduate level courses encounter athletes as often as they would at the undergraduate level. This means that the obligation, for lack of better words, to be more understanding and considerate of athletes’ competition and training schedules does not exist. This is not a critique of graduate school, but merely an observation.

This is where the balance of academia and athletics becomes difficult. When both aspects of my life requires a heightened amount of my time and dedication, it sometimes feels like I am being pulled in two different directions. As a student and an athlete, I can be one without the other. My athletic capabilities no longer affect my ability to afford school. If I decided right now to hang up my spikes, my academics would not be affected. My academics no longer affect my competition or training. If I failed out of school or quit school, I could still run and train. Of course it is not that simple. Graduate life also comes with the reality of bills and living expenses that need to be handled.

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I knew that this balancing act would not be easy, but I didn’t quite expect why it was difficult. The limited time and extensive work was expected, but the expectation from my professors and colleagues that academia is this passion burning in you was not what I anticipated. How do you explain that, although I still value academics as a student-athlete who was consistently on the dean’s list, my heart is not in academics in the way they expect? Of course, I value everything I learn in grad school, but not to an extent that I would make a career in academia. How do I explain to someone in academia who may have never played a sport in their life or spoken to an athlete, why it is worth spending a year or years of your life to pursue goals of athletic excellence? There are many questions about dealing with this dichotomy and explaining this dichotomy to someone who does not share your goals. Although many times I am frustrated, I am also excited to have this unique experience. I don’t want this to be a discouragement to anyone. It is simply one of various realizations I have had and will have in this track journey.

Proverbs 22 The Right Circle Part 1

As I scroll through my Facebook, I glance at the various accomplishments that my peers from Villanova University have achieved since I left my junior year. One person I enjoy following is a man named Kevin Monangai. He was in my graduating class. He also played football for Villanova University. We are not close. We were just two wildcats who rolled in similar circles.

So why would I follow someone I am not that close with? Well if you do not know Villanova University, it is known for basketball and at the time I was a student, the football team struggled. Yet, Kevin constantly posted about the strength of his team and his Nova pride. After graduating he posted about being scouted for the NFL. Because Villanova is not known for football, you wouldn’t think someone coming from a small team would even think about going pro. Yet, this man worked hard and is now with the Philly Eagles.

I don’t know if Kevin thinks of his story as an underdog story, but following his posts, that’s what I see as someone who sees herself as an underdog. His success continues to inspire to continue my goal in being an elite runner and using where I came from in terms of athleticism as motivation.

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So that was a long introduction to a simple verse. As I scrolled through my timeline I came across a post from Kevin Monangai with the verse Proverbs 22:29 “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men.”

I read the rest of Proverbs 22 to get some context and see the general theme. I want to focus on for this post with my track mind is to make sure you avoid the wrong people, and in track you meet a lot of “mean men.” These people will discourage you, sabotage your work and drag your name through the mud.

Proverbs 22 names some of those people. Verse 10 mentions the scoffer or mocker. In track there is always someone who got something to say. No matter how hard you work or how great you improve, there will be someone who say you won’t improve or you are foolish for thinking differently from them. You can fight all you want and drive yourself mad trying to prove yourself to a scoffer but a scoffer is going to find something to scoff. It is 2016, perfect time to do some soul cleaning and rid yourself of negative energy. Wasting your time fighting with someone who doesn’t value your hard work doesn’t benefit you. In track, I learn to very politely ignore certain people and move on.

Verse 13 mentions the lazy man. My one track mind thinks of the lazy person as someone who accepts defeat. While the scoffer weigh you down with insults. The lazy man weighs you down by making you willing to accept what life has given you. Staying stagnant is just as bad as moving backwards. In track, when you work hard, you improve. When you improve, your goals change. Do not let laziness and discouragement stop you from achieving your goals. Track is a trying sport and a sport that you can’t rely on the efforts of others. Laziness always shows at some point.

Verse 14 talks about an adulterous woman. Lets talk about adulterers male and female. Man! Sex or passionate infatuation or just the general desire to be loved by anyone can drive anyone up and down the walls and more dangerously, off track from your goals. Sometimes it’s another person who drags you down by first building your ego while tearing down your morals or making you forget your goals. Many times you are your own adulterer. Yes I just went there. Yes, you can cheat on your goals and morals. My high school summer coach tells me “track is a jealous sport.” You got to give it your all. Getting caught with brief moments of satisfaction will make your goals seem that much further. I cheated on my goals with someone I liked. I’ll talk more about this man in future posts, but there were too many times I chose laying next to him over going to church or doing proper rehab. The sad thing was, he wasn’t willing to give up the same amount of time for me.

We like to think we are immune to negative people, but the truth of the matter is we are human and the desire to get or give human attention causes us to forget our immunity. It’s just important to avoid being with people who make you feel bad about your ambitions and yourself. As you find yourself being more successful, your circle will shrink. It’s cliche to say but so accurate. Be confident in your gifts and the vision God has given you for your future.