March 18, 2009
by Lee Nichols
College Station, Texas, March 13 & 14--Despite assurances from point-counting reporters that the championship was his, Tennessee coach J.J. Clark refused to comment on his victory until his staff could give him an ironclad guarantee his Volunteers couldn't be caught. After having watched a few stumbles by his athletes--one of them literal--his nervousness was understandable.
Tennessee came into the meet a solid favorite, but its campaign got off to a grim start--expected scorer Lynne Layne did not advance in either short sprint.
But the team rebounded in about as spectacular a fashion as possible: Its distance medley quartet of Phoebe Wright, Brittany Jones, Chanelle Price and Sarah Bowman whipped around to American and Collegiate (and given its rarely-run status internationally, World) Records in 10:50.98.
The time cleared up any dispute about the American record, knocking off not only their own 10:56.40 from last month's New Balance Invitational but also the unratified 10:54.34 by Villanova from '88.
(It was one of three CRs, the others being an 8:42.03 in the 3000 by Jenny Barringer of Colorado and a 6-6/1.98 high jump by Texas star Destinee Hooker.)
That bounce-back presaged a second day that was (nearly) flawless for Bowman and her teammates. Following the blistering pace of Texas Tech's fearless 5K winner, Sally Kipyego, Bowman used a gritty homestretch kick to run the Kenyan down at the wire in the mile.
Both dipped under Suzy Favor's meet record, with Bowman leaning to a 0.03 victory in 4:29.72. "I thought Sarah was a different person from last year, based on all of her races throughout the season," Clark said. "I thought she was looking good at covering all the gaps, coming up on [Kipyego's] shoulder. I knew it would be tight, but I felt comfortable in the finish."
But we said nearly flawless. With other teams still within striking range, Wright took a heart-stopping stumble two laps into the 800. However, she kept her feet for a 2:04.38 second place, just behind BYU's Lacey Cramer.
"I said, `Phoebe, stay on your feet, stay on feet, we need some points, stay on your feet,' " Clark said. "Phoebe did an incredible job. She was very sick this week with a sinus infection, so I'm very proud.
Her balance proved invaluable--had she finished 7th or DNFed, Texas A&M's listleading 3:32.52 victory in the 4x4 would have lifted the host Aggies to the championship. As it was, Clark's decision to hold an exhausted Bowman out of the 3K proved to be inconsequential.
"You can't worry about things you can't control," Clark said of the early missteps. "I've been through lot of competitions nationally and internally. I couldn't worry about that.
"Today, the team stepped up. We had a 4:29 mile, we had an 8.04 hurdle, we had a shot putter throw her best ever, and Phoebe Wright, who didn't even make it last year, almost won the 800. The ladies came in and performed as a championship team."