Feb. 7, 2011
By Larry Watts
When she visited Penn State back in 2002, Shana Cox came primarily to visit her brother Adrian, who was two years older.
“I am very close to my brother and he’s the reason why I started running track in high school,’’ the Westbury, N.Y. native says. “When he went away to college, it was our first time away from each other for a significant period. I seriously wasn’t thinking about running here, but the sprints coach (Jeff McAuley) had been in contact with me and I decided to turn it into an official visit.’’
A standout sprinter at Holy Trinity High School, the 5-foot-9 Cox had already made official visits to Miami (Fla.), Maryland and South Carolina. She had a fifth visit lined up to Texas, but by the time she left State College her mind was already made up.
“I was looking for somewhere I would feel comfortable socially, a place with respectable academics and, athletically. I wanted a good situation as far as support from the university, coaches and teammates. Indoor track is huge in New York, so I also wanted to be somewhere with great training facilities and the indoor facility at Penn State is state of the art.’’
Cox enrolled at Penn State in 2003 and still hasn’t left. In her four years of running for the Nittany Lions, the psychology major accumulated 12 Big Ten titles and 11 All-America honors, including first place in the 400 and anchor on the 4x400 relay team at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in her final year (2008).
She is now in her third season of graduate studies in human resource management at Penn State and competing professionally for Team Adidas.
However, things didn’t get off to a smooth start for the future Nittany Lion standout. While training indoors in November of her freshman year, she felt a pop in her right knee and immediately tumbled to the track.
“It was a combination of a misstep and trying to shuffle around people,’’ she says. “We didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but the trainers gave me crutches.
“Later that day, one of my crutches slipped on some ice and my knee drove straight into the concrete. The next day, I got X-rays and I couldn’t believe I had fractured my kneecap. I had my share of nicks and scrapes before, but when I realized the severity of this injury and how long I would be out, it was pretty devastating.
“That’s when my internal motivation had to switch on. I wasn’t necessarily part of the team anymore, but I was motivated to compete in the World Junior Championships in Italy that coming summer.’’
Cox met her goal. In her first meet back, she qualified for the U.S. team in the 200 at the USA Championships. That earned her a spot competing in the World Championships.
“Not only did I meet my goal, but I got a chance to wear a Penn State uniform for the first time (at the USA Championships),’’ she says.
Her first season of competition at Penn State also marked the first season for new sprints coach Chris Johnson, who remains her professional coach. And Johnson’s idea for easing Cox back into the routine was to put her in the 400.
“I had only ran the 400 a couple of times in high school and he (Johnson) thought the quick starts in the shorter sprints put too much pressure on my knee,’’ she says. “I gasped when he asked me to do it at first. I didn’t like the event, but I had a great deal of respect for it and accepted it.’’
During the indoor season, she finished second in both the 200 and 4x400 at the Big Ten Championships and claimed her first All-America certificate with an 11th in the 400 at the NCAA Championships. Outdoors, she claimed the first of her three 400 Big Ten titles and was ninth at the NCAA Championships. She would return to take third and second in the following seasons before snagging the title in her final try.
“Coming into the arena (in 2005) was some place I always saw myself being,’’ she says. “This was my first time in an arena where people were operating at the same level I was. I realized if I wanted to be good at this and achieve the goal of being a national champion, I needed to work hard because there were other people just as talented as I was.
“Coach Johnson always told me, ‘When it comes to talent and hard work, hard work will always beat talent when talent doesn’t show up.’ As an athlete, you want to be good right now, so I had to learn to exercise patience, determination and sacrifice. That was the beginning of a huge growth for me mentally, physically and spiritually.’’
Each year proceeded to bring more determination, more hard work and more accolades. After helping Penn State win its first ever Big Ten indoor title in the 4x400 relay, she claimed four gold medals (200, 400, 4x100, 4x400) in the Big Ten at the outdoor meet in 2006. After adding another pair of 4x400 Big Ten titles to her belt in 2007, she came back for her final season to take conference laurels both indoors and outdoors in the 200 and 400, as well as the 4x400 relay. She ended her collegiate career with four individual and four relay school records.
It all culminated with NCAA titles in the 400 and 4x400 relay at Duke University. And that relay crown with Dominique Blake, Aleesha Barber and Gayle Hunter meant just as much to Cox as the individual title.
“For me, that 400 title was all about putting the pieces of the puzzle together,’’ she says. “I had the No. 1 time in the country, but that meant absolutely nothing. This was it and there was no chance to make up for it. I had to trust in my training, my physical ability and my talent, and then hope everything would fall into place.
“But that 4x400 title was all about passion. It was my last race in a Penn State uniform and we had all been through so much together. One year, we had one of the top three teams in the country and didn’t even make it to the finals.’’
The emotion finally hit Cox during a pre-race prayer with her teammates, including the two alternates and their coach. The runners from Arkansas and Virginia Tech as well as their coaches soon joined them.
“We formed this huge circle and suddenly there was this wave of emotion,’’ she says. “I don’t know why, but I started crying, uncontrollable sobs. Everyone looked at me because I’m not one who cries, but everything we had been through the past five years started flashing before my eyes. I still tear up when I think about it.
“I couldn’t wait to get onto the track because all of this emotion had risen up inside of me. I just wanted to let it out for myself, my team and my school. When you put on a Penn State uniform, you are not just competing for yourself at the time. But you are competing for three other girls in that relay, for the 36 girls who travel to Big Ten meets, for the 100-something on the roster and the thousands who go to your school and all the alumni. I just hope others feel that same way when they put on a uniform.’’
Cox competed in the 200 and 400 at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. She failed to make it out of the prelims in the 200 and took ninth in the 400 semifinals, but the top eight advanced to the finals.
“I didn’t do as well as I wanted,’’ she says. “It was a long season and still an amazing year. You take what you can and I signed with Team Adidas to start a new career.’’
Cox proudly reports the problems with her right knee were cured last year and she was finally able to end rehabilitation. With her knee at 100 percent, she went out and set the American record in the 500 (1:08.70) during the Penn State National Invitational in January 2010.
“I kept telling people to come to the meet because I was going to break the American record,’’ she says with a laugh. “I never really thought I was going to do it, but it was my goal. It was only by .01 of a second, but I did it at Penn State and in front of my parents.
“Now that I am 100 percent free of injury, I have gone back to my roots and am running 60s, 100s, 200s and 400s. I’m getting back to being that whole athlete instead of one who just focuses on one distance. That knee problem had been with me for so many years; it was like that feeling you get when you knock your knee into a corner of a table and it lingered with me.’’
Cox now trains with plenty of familiar faces, including Barber, Blake and Gigi Johnson, wife of her coach and a former U.S. heptathlon champion. But when it comes to the World Championships this summer, there’s a good chance she will compete under the banner of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“I have dual citizenship because my parents and brother were born there,’’ she says. “Since most of my family is still in Great Britain, it was a no-brainer for me. I’m in the process of transferring allegiance right now. My plans now are to train through 2013, which will take me through the Olympics and the next World Championships. Then I will decide how much farther I want to take this.’’