Oct. 13, 2008
There's a reason why University of Tennessee senior Sarah Bowman is a three-time All-SEC and two-time NCAA All-South Region cross country runner. It's the same reason why she earned 2008 SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year and USTFCCCA NCAA Division I National Indoor Scholar-Athlete of the Year accolades. Despite being gifted with an abundance of natural talent, Bowman also has been blessed with an unquenchable desire to always put forth her very best effort.
That combination has enabled Bowman to lead the Lady Volunteers to the finish line in 10 of her last 11 races and to become one of the most decorated cross country runners in the sport's 35-year history at Rocky Top. Her commitment to excellence also has paved the way for the Warrenton, Va., native to carry a 3.85 grade point average in human resource management, despite a seemingly never-ending competition schedule that last season extended from cross country in August 2007 to the final of the 1500 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in July 2008.
From Bowman's point of view, the traits necessary for her to excel both athletically and academically are one and the same.
"It goes hand in hand, with just the type of person you are," Bowman said. "With running, I want to succeed, and I have this internal drive to do the very best that I can do. It's like you can't settle for anything less than your best.
"In school, that competitive attitude just translates over for me. I don't want to settle for anything less than my best with my school work either. You put your effort into it. I think a lot of athletes are pretty similar, because you have that discipline that the sport teaches you, and that translates over into other areas of your life."
Bowman's head coach, five-time SEC Women's Cross Country Coach of the Year J.J. Clark, signed the heralded prospect out of Fauquier High School four years ago because of the promise she displayed on the oval as a middle distance runner at 800 and 1500 meters. He is even more impressed now by the total athletic and academic package his pupil has become.
"Sarah's marks in cross country and track are well-noted, but what has been coming forth recently is just how successful she is academically," Clark said. "She's driven, in competition and away from competition, to be the best she can be, and that's very evident by her athletic marks. It is very nice to see someone who can contribute athletically without sacrificing her academic progress, and she has the complete package required to be an All-American athletically as well as one of the top student-athletes nationally in the academic realm."
Track always has been Bowman's first love, and running the trails during the fall was not high on her priority list when she came to Knoxville to run for the Big Orange during the fall of 2005. Though she has always had that drive to push herself, she admits it took her a while to learn to enjoy running cross country.
"I feel like it has been a process," Bowman said of her journey toward appreciating the sport. "I don't know if there was any defining moment for me, when I decided I really liked cross country, or thought, 'this is great.' I don't know if there ever will be a moment when someone says, 'cross country is great.'
"What has happened, though, is that I really have gained a respect for cross country. It is just one of those sports you just have to respect, and you have to respect the people who can go out there and do it, because it is tough. It's really about making yourself hurt when you don't want to hurt, and as a result it makes you tougher and prepares you for track season."
"Sarah has developed as a great athlete over the past few years and scored many points at the SEC and NCAA level, Clark said. "She ran O.K. her freshman year, but through the years, you can see how she has developed consistency. I believe it is a result of her maturity, psychologically, and understanding the value of cross country.
"She's developed and has been able to conquer the wear and tear on your psyche that cross country can cause. She has done a great job of sticking it out and becoming very confident in that area. She actually likes doing the longer runs now, and it has been nice, from a coaching standpoint, to see that maturity take place. I believe that bodes well not only for cross country season but for the indoor and outdoor track seasons as well."
There is no question that cross country helped Bowman during the 2008 track campaign. She won four SEC titles, including individual crowns in the mile and 3K indoors for the second straight season and a 1500m victory at the outdoor meet. She also helped the Lady Vols claim their second consecutive conference distance medley relay title and go on to win an NCAA crown with a school-record time in that event as well.
After charting a third-place finish in the 1500 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Championships with the fourth-best mark ever recorded by a collegiate woman at 4:07.50, Bowman advanced to the U.S. Olympic Trials. In Eugene, she would advance all the way to the final, where she was the only college runner in her event to make it to that round.
Such a long season, though, required Bowman to take some time off after the Trials to allow her body some rest. That layoff left UT's top returnee behind her cross country teammates, in terms of training, entering fall camp. At least, that was the concern that Bowman had.
With Clark holding Bowman out of the first meet to allow her to continue her training, she made her debut at the Tennessee Invitational on Sept. 19. The Lady Vol captain quickly dispelled any notions that she wasn't up to speed. All she did was win by a minute and four seconds, logging a career-best 5,000-meter readout of 17 minutes, 21 seconds that ranked as the seventh-best time ever recorded on the Lambert Acres course.
Bowman came back two weekends later to notch an 11th-place outcome at the Brooks Paul Short Run in Bethlehem, Pa., on Oct. 3. Her time of 20:28 was 23 seconds better than she ran at the course in 2007 and ranked as the fastest 6,000-meter mark of the 2008 campaign by an SEC woman as of the Oct. 7 league top times list.
"I feel like it (the time she took off) has been good for me, because I've come back this year stronger than I have in the past," Bowman said. "It's nice to come in and be ahead of where you were the year before. I've been doing a lot of base work, but I still came back stronger.
"I took a couple of weeks after the Trials just to relax and enjoy myself, and then I just started back slowly, getting into the runs. I was a little worried at first about being behind, but it is such a long season anyway that you can just kind of slowly come into it. SECs are coming up soon, but I have had more time now to prepare. I think I am back where I want to be."
Bowman believes her team is making strides toward getting where it wants to be. The Lady Vols moved into the rankings briefly at No. 29 on Sept. 30 after a second-place team finish at the Belmont Opener and a triumph at the Tennessee Invitational. A sixth-place outcome against a solid 43-team field at the Brooks Paul Short Run on Oct. 3, though, resulted in the Orange and White dropping back out of the USTFCCCA National Poll. Still, UT currently ranks fourth in the South Region, and UT's standout sees a team laden with 11 newcomers starting to gel.
"I've just been noticing that we are getting stronger and stronger," Bowman said. "The freshmen are figuring things out and coming along so well. Everyone on the team, in workouts, is pushing each other and working with each other to make us all better.
"I think we are finding ourselves and meshing as a team. We have a lot of new people this year, but I am really starting to see us come together. It's just really nice to see that and be a part of that. I think we are going to come on really strong when it counts."
With so many youngsters on the squad, the senior understands her role on this team is much more than being Tennessee's first finisher in races.
"I really want to be a team leader," Bowman said. "That's always important, as one of the seniors on the team and with so many new people, just to be there and set an example. It is especially important this season, with us having such a young team.
"It's critical to have people step up who've been there and done that. It also motivates me, because I want to help the team out."
Bowman recognizes that her pursuit of excellence, her maturation process and her willingness to be a team leader have blossomed under Clark's tutelage, but she realizes the foundation for her personality traits was built in her home.
"I owe so much to my family," Bowman said. "I couldn't even begin to tell you how much they do for me with their support. Even from high school, taking me to meets and just being there for the low moments and the high moments. They've pretty much been there through it all.
"I get comments from people, like, 'hey, your parents come to a lot of meets.' If they can make it, they are going to be there. A lot of people don't have that type of support, with parents coming to meets. It's something I don't want to take for granted.
And the presence in Big Orange Country of a total package like Bowman is not something Clark takes for granted, either. He knows that student-athletes of her caliber don't come along very often.