From Walk-On To All-American
Nov. 20, 2009
By Jeremy Rosenthal
Special to NCAA.com
In 2004, a girl from South Central High School finished second-to-last in the 3200-meter run at the Indiana state high school track meet.
Two years later, when she graduated with a class of 58, she received an opportunity to walk-on to the Indiana track and field team, more for her work ethic then her talent.
Today, junior Sarah Pease is an All-American athlete and school record holder in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Pease carried her success on the track over to the cross country course with a fourth-place finish in the Great Lakes Regional on Nov. 14 in Bloomington.
Pease and the women’s cross country team received an at-large bid to the 2009 NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Cross Country Championships, their first appearance since 2004. She said although she would have qualified for the meet individually, she is much happier to be going with her team.
“It’s nice to make it by yourself, but at the same time it’s so much better to go with your team,” Pease said. “Our team put in as much hard work as any individual, so to see everyone get rewarded for their effort all year is better than for yourself.”
For Pease, who did not see great success in high school, it was a dream come true for her to attend Indiana University.
Former IU head coach Judy Wilson recruited Pease, who shared the same personal bests as Wilson in the 800-meter run and mile in high school. Wilson went from walk-on at IU, to one of the best Hoosier runners, to a fourth place finish in the 5,000-meter run at the 1988 Olympic Trials.
“I think she let me run because she thought maybe there is potential there,” Pease said. “It was definitely good to have that opportunity and have her had that same experience.”
When IU head coach Ron Helmer took the job in 2007 he met with assistant coach Jake Wiseman to talk about the athletes on the team. Wiseman expressed to Helmer his feelings about Pease.
“He said ‘I just like the girl. She’s just tough and I like her. I think she’ll find a way to be good,’” Helmer said.
Over the past two years, she has found that way and her times have dropped dramatically. In her freshman year, Pease ran a personal best of 10:54 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, and last year she set the school record at 10:06. In her sophomore year, Pease ran a personal best of 17:39 in the 5,000-meters during the indoor track season. The next year she lowered that time to 16:48, and during the outdoor season she dropped to 16:30.
Pease said she attributes the improvement to increased mileage in training and running with teammates like 2008 NCAA cross country All-American Wendi Robinson.
“It has changed my running completely,” she said, “because it has brought my training to a different level.”
Helmer said the success has come from Pease putting out her best effort every day.
“She learned early on, out of necessity, what it sometimes takes athletes a whole career to learn,” he said. “That is, if you don’t waste any opportunity and bring your best everyday like she does, as a result, someone with modest high school talent can become a great force at this level. She deserves everything she is getting and has worked for everything she is getting.”
Pease said that she works hard because she wants to be able to compete with her teammates and other top athletes.
“I feel like if you don’t work hard everyday then you’re not going to get anywhere here because everyone is so good,” she said. “To be able to compete with other people, even my teammates and people in the Big Ten I have to make sure I put it out there everyday.”
Another factor is the people that she is surrounded by on a daily basis.
“The girls that I run with are my best friends here and my best friends period,” she said. “It’s really easy coming to practice everyday and seeing your best friends and getting to run with them and enjoy training with them, because it makes it so much easier to train when you enjoy the people you are with.”
Pease was so excited about the possibility of qualifying for the national meet that she sat in front of her computer repeatedly clicking the refresh button on the NCAA website as the announcement came across at 7 p.m. last Sunday. Pease, who knew the team’s fate even before her coach, said it was the most excited she has been in a long time.
Pease grew up in Elizabeth, Ind., a town close to the Indiana-Kentucky border with a population of roughly 137 people. She described the town as very close knit and said people still call to see how she is doing and are excited about the success both her and her team are having.
One of her biggest fans is her sister Rachel, who also runs and qualified for the high school state meet this year. Sarah said they talk about races and cheer for each other when they can. She added that Rachel is extremely excited about missing school to see her big sister run on Monday.
Pease will line up with her teammates as only the seventh women’s team to run at the national meet since 1981. For all the hard work she has put in, Helmer said he hopes more athletes learn from her example.
“It’s the success story you hope all your athletes have a chance to be part of,” he said.