All for One
By putting teamwork first, the Wildcats track and field team has set records and built camaraderie.
By Karen K. Hansen | PHOTPGRAPHS BY REBECCA ZENEFSKI '10
Runners and throwers. Slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscles. Type A and Type B personalities. At St. Kate's they're all on the same team, and by working together they achieve A+ results.
In the past three seasons, the Wildcats track and field team has set 30 school records and earned 44 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) honors and all-academic honors. As of their final regular season meet in May, they'd captured 14 more school records and nine conference honors and were on track to earn more MIAC honors at the outdoor conference championships.
Success is attractive: Since 2007, the team roster has increased from 11 members to 27, in part because the coaches draw and train students whose skills make them good track and field prospects — regardless of prior experience.
A prime example is Rebecca Zenefski '10. Assistant Coach Bryan Tolcser saw the makings of a javelin thrower as he observed her playing volleyball. Zenefski, who majored in exercise and sport science, says joining the track and field team "was one of the best decisions I made at St. Kate's."
Leading by Example
Senior co-captains Sami Larson, Amanda Manship, Greta Sieve and Celestine Ventura led the 2009-10 team as colleagues, as competitors and as friends. Each broke school records and earned multiple Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) awards. Sieve qualified for nationals in two separate events, smashing her own St. Kate's record May 2 in the 5,000 meters at the Oregon Relays. Three of them also were roommates.
Together they faced the challenge of getting disparate individuals to interact — and win — as one team. That's no small feat, given that runners and throwers practice in different locations and compete in multiple, separate events.
With their eyes on the goal of making the team work as one cohesive unit, the co-captains put their creativity to work. Buddy systems are common among collegiate teams, but these leaders mixed it up, pairing runners with throwers across different class years. The captains also led drills and warm-ups. In the weight room, they motivated younger team members to push themselves, while allaying any concern about "bulking up." During meets, they held blocks, gave technical advice and cheered on their teammates.
To foster understanding of what it takes to succeed in a colleague's event, the coaches and captains planned an annual team decathlon during which all team members compete in four of five events over two days. Ventura learned that "running is not as easy as you think," and Larson realized that "everyone puts in as much work as you do."
Mostly the captains led by example, working hard on their own training and checking in with team members to ask, "Are you OK?" Other circumstances required sophisticated self-awareness. Manship learned to be quiet if she was frustrated during competition. "I couldn't let my attitude affect the others," she says.
The team earned a reputation on campus for being a close-knit group. "We wouldn't do it if it wasn't fun," says Larson. Sieve offers: "I couldn't have asked for three better people to be co-captains with. We complement each other really well."
The track and field coaches also practice what they teach.Head Coach Mike Henderson, 31, earned a chip time of 55:45 in the 2008 Twin Cities Marathon 10-mile race, placing 12th, and Tolcser competes in U.S. National Championship throwing events.
"We're both track and field nerds," laughs Henderson. "We can talk about this for hours." And they do, with Tolcser weighing in on plans for the runners and Henderson keeping track of the throwers' progress.
"We collaborate on everything," Henderson says.
Fit for Life
Like the captains, the coaches deliver some lessons directly and others by example. During post-meet team meetings, Henderson praises everyone who achieved a personal best.He wants to show that anyone can make "incremental steps toward excellence."
"Right now the students think it's just about track," he says. "When they get out there, they'll realize it's relevant."
The student-athletes have learned that Henderson will juggle their training schedules if they inform him of their academic commitments. No surprise that the team's GPA ranks in the top 10 nationally among Division III schools.
Keeping his office door open, Henderson encourages students to come to him when problems are still small. "Basically, you can talk to him about anything," Manship explains. "You can cry, vent about school, boys, whatever, and that's OK."
Coaches and students learn together. Tolcser tries to find positive ways to deliver the detailed critiques that are essential to developing a thrower's technique. Observing Larson's shot-put throws during practice, he said of one, "That wasn't as bad."
Larson shot back: "Would that be another way of saying that I improved?"
Manship, who transferred from the University of St. Thomas in her sophomore year, noticed a lot of students on a first name basis with professors, a sign of St. Kate's collaborative culture.
"There's something about being at an all-women's school, where there's more cooperation and also competition," Henderson observes. The captains found both qualities integrated in their athletic and academic endeavors.
"In all my classes they keep talking about collaboration," Sieve says. "In occupational therapy you have to work with the physical therapists, the doctors and nurses."
"There is that competitive aspect to get the best grade you can," adds Ventura, a nursing major, "but there's also that support that nobody wants to see anybody fail."
Indeed, the strength of St. Kate's culture and the team's success is in the pairing of collaboration with excellent personal performance. "Track is a team sport," Tolcser says, "but individuals score points."
Friends and Rivals
Strategizing about how to score the most points at meets is a collaborative effort — among the coaches. After Henderson checks out what every other team is doing, he and the assistant coaches decide which athletes to enter in each event.
It's a benevolent dictatorship, and the students understand that. "Mike tries to enter you in events you'll qualify well for. you can talk to him and figure out why you're best suited for those events," Ventura explains.
Henderson wants to see everyone succeed. "These young adults are putting their trust in us," he says. And succeed they did, even when it meant competing against their friends.
One indoor meet came down to Larson and Ventura's last shot put throws. Larson threw a new personal best of 12.57 meters and took the lead. Then Ventura threw 12.62 meters and won. "Even though she beat me by five centimeters, I was still very excited with my throw and excited for her," Larson recalls.
Sieve runs faster than almost everyone else on their team — or any other collegiate track and field star throughout the country. Sieve and her sister captains have handled that potentially divisive situation with humor and judicious silence. "I don't really like to think about being a standout athlete," Sieve says. "Sami and Celeste like to joke about, 'Oh, another school record,' but they're really good about leaving the issue, and that's how I prefer it."
As they finished their senior year, the four co-captains had reason to hold their heads high. Their names and record-breaking achievements will remain, set in bronze, in Butler Center — setting a high bar and a fast pace for those who follow.
"Whenever we get to the big meets, we talk about acting like you own the place," Henderson says. "By the time they're seniors, you see them do that."
Karen K. Hansen is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer/photographer and clarinetist.
What it Takes
With a little help from her coach, one standout student-athlete became an NCAA star.
It's a coach's dream to mentor a smart, gifted athlete who works as hard as Greta Sieve '10. During a workout last April, coach Mike Henderson had Sieve holding her 10K pace down to 5:50 minutes per mile. Sieve's cool-down was a five-mile run — with Henderson.
When Sieve's occupational therapy coursework schedule began to conflict with the team's afternoon practices, Henderson started training the track star one-on-one, customizing daily workouts and working out at her side. Born of necessity, the strategy let Sieve proceed at her own pace.
At the Drake relays this past April 22, Sieve had the best race of her college career. "So far anyway," Henderson said with a grin. Sieve ran an NCAA qualifying time of 10:34:91 in the 3,000-meter steeple chase, guaranteeing a trip to "nationals" in late May and placing her second on the Division III national performance list and first in the MIAC.
Who beat Sieve in the race? Two Division I athletes.
The All-American athlete finished at the top academically, too. On May 4, she was given the Thomas More award, a prestigious all-University student leadership award presented to students who demonstrate integrity, outstanding loyalty and service to the University, and who promote campus community spirit.
Of course, Sieve will continue training. "I want to see how far I can go," she muses. Next step: chasing a sub-three hour marathon.
"The committed athletes become good; it's not the good athletes who become committed." — Coach Mike Henderson