Overcoming Life's Hurdles
Feb. 4, 2009
Life in the fast lane isn't so fast for Danielle Carruthers. It's not that the former Indiana University track standout doesn't want to get faster, but she is just making sure she takes the time to enjoy herself along the way.
Now settled in Marietta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, the 29-year-old hurdler switched coaches within the past year and is embarking on another season on the pro circuit. Her first stop under the tutelage of new coach Loren Seagrave was in Leipzig, Germany last month.
"I'm still that young girl from Paducah, Ky. trying to figure things out,'' she says. "When you perform at this level, it's not always about staying comfortable. Sometimes you just want to go beyond the point of being comfortable. You want those growing pains because I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.''
Part of those growing pains meant leaving former coach Gail Devers, a three-time Olympic champion, last fall. Carruthers had joined with Devers in 2006 and simply felt she wasn't making the right progress.
"Maybe it was the philosophy, but it was still a great experience,'' Carruthers says. "The workouts with Gail were always intense and I learned how to perform through those workouts. Even if something goes wrong during practice, I learned you don't always have to be perfect. My body just wasn't responding, so I knew I had to make a tough decision in the way I was training.
"I believe I can still run better and run 12.3s on a consistent basis. My mind tells me I can keep doing this through 2013, but the 2012 Olympics is the furthest thing from my mind right now. I still have the European Tour and plenty of other challenges ahead of me.''
To this day, Carruthers still finds it amazing that the gift of speed has led her from playing in the river near Paducah, where she and her mother were living on food stamps, to standing in front of some of the greatest sights in the world. Years later, the mayor called Carruthers back to Paducah to honor her for her accomplishments.
"My mother (Jackie) had me when she was 20 and my father left two years later,'' she says of her early childhood. "Those we some pretty tough times. We were really poor and in danger of losing our house because we couldn't pay our taxes. My mother finally got some assistance from the government and we were living on food stamps until she finally found enough work so we could make ends meet.''
Carruthers says her life took a big change when she reached 13.
"I was hanging around the wrong people,'' she says. "And that path usually heads in the same direction -- getting pregnant as a teenager, marrying your high school sweetheart and then landing in some tech school, if you're lucky.''
But at Tilghman High School, track coach Cecil Ward found out Carruthers could run fast and recruited her to the track team. Ward provided her with her first pair of spikes and entered her in the Mason-Dixon Games in Louisville, which is considered to be Kentucky's indoor state championships. Carruthers won the 60 and became the indoor state champ.
But to be sure Carruthers' head didn't grow too big from her initial success, Ward took her to Iowa for a national meet.
"And I got my drawers blown off,'' she now says with a laugh. "But the biggest thing I found out was I could do things with track if I set my mind in the right direction.
"Track really changed my life. My circle of friends changed and I even got involved in band. My mother bought me a second-hand flute, which had a great sound. I even turned out to be competitive in band because my goal was to be first chair, which I did manage to do.''
It was when she visited Indiana as a junior with her then-boyfriend, who was hoping to play football and run track for the Hoosiers, that her eyes really opened. By that time, she had already been hearing from a number of schools because she had been running times of 13.5 in the 100 hurdles and 11.15 in the 100 dash, but Indiana wasn't even on her radar screen.
However, the visit to Indiana and conversation with sprint coach Ed Beathea left a lasting impression on Carruthers. She wound up signing early with the Hoosiers.
But just before the start of her freshman year of competition, her first season was over. Carruthers had suffered a slight tear in her ACL while playing soccer during her senior year of high school and then completely tore the ACL while doing a simple hurdle drill at Indiana.
"Although I didn't realize it at the time, that adversity actually made me a better runner,'' she says. "But I never experienced so much pain as I did during those four months of recovery.''
It didn't take Carruthers long to make up for lost time. As a redshirt freshman in 2000, she took second in the 200 meters (24.10), third in the 60 hurdles (school record 8.25) and sixth in the 60 dash at the Big Ten Indoor Championships.
At the NCAA Championship, she was 13th in the 200 with a school record time of 24.09 and 11th in the 60 hurdles. On the outdoor track, her 4x100 relay team took the first of four Big Ten titles during her career and she gained All-American honors when that team placed seventh at the NCAA Championship. She was third in the 200 with a career-best 23.7 and fifth in the 100 hurdles at the Big Ten meet. She also qualified for the NCAA Championship in the 100 hurdles.
Her sophomore season again found her qualifying for the NCAA indoor meet in the 60 hurdles. She took runner-up honors in the 100 hurdles at the NCAA outdoor meet with a school record 12.79 and also earned All-American accolades as part of her 4x100 relay team, which also won the Big Ten meet with a school record of 44.01. She also qualified in the 100 hurdles for the 2001 World University Games in Beijing, China after taking sixth at the USA Track and Field Championships.
Her 2002 season was by far her best at Indiana. She won the 60 at the conference indoor meet with a school and meet record of 7.26 while also taking second in the 200 and sixth in the 60 hurdles. At the NCAA meet, she was second in the 60 hurdles (7.92) and sixth in the 60 dash. On the outdoor oval, she set school and meet records while winning the 100 hurdles at the Big Ten Championships. Her time of 12.68 was the third-fastest by a collegian ever. Her 4x100 relay team won its third straight conference title. After earning All-America honors in the 100 hurdles at the NCAA Championships, she went on to compete at the North America/Central American/Caribbean U-25 Championships and at the U.S. vs. Great Britain meet.
However, that long summer of training and competing proved costly for her senior year at Indiana. She returned to Bloomington after classes had started.
"I ran fast, but my body was tired and I never really had a chance to rest for the 2003 season,'' she says even though she did manage to place second in the 60 hurdles at the NCAA indoor meet. "I was running four events, which included qualifying heats and semifinals, every weekend.
"I didn't really like that 200. I was OK for the first 150, but those extra 50 meters really put a strain on my body.''
Things really went downhill during the hurdle semifinals at the Big Ten outdoor meet. Carruthers clipped the last hurdle, tried to catch herself as she went down and wound up rolling across the finish line, yet she still qualified for the finals.
"Putting my hand down was a big mistake, I should have just let myself fall,'' she says. "I think I broke a small bone in my wrist, but I just had them wrap my wrist and went on because we needed the points.''
Carruthers' biggest year on the pro circuit came in 2005, when she won the USA Indoor championship and took firsts at the Powered by Tyson Invite, the Millrose Games and Reebok Boston Indoor Games. She was ranked as the sixth-best hurdler by Track and Field News. She also won the USA Indoor title in 2006 and took runner-up honors at the USA Indoor meet and Reebok Indoor Games as well as third in the Millrose Games in 2007.
Her attempt at making the Olympic Team in 2004 fell .01 seconds short and she was unable to advance out of the quarterfinals last summer.
"It took me the rest of the summer to get over not making the Olympic team (in 2004),'' Carruthers says. "But I did come back to win the national indoor titles in both 2005 and 2006.
"I've never once regretted my decision to go with track. I was the first from my family to earn a college degree (sports management) and my coaches and teammates at Indiana were unbelievable. We were all like sisters on that team and I still stay in touch with all those girls on the 4x100 team.
"Track has taken me to a lot of places I would never have been in my life,'' she adds. "I have been getting lifetime experiences.''