Finishing On Top
May 20, 2009
By Larry Watts
Life is good these days for Ben Harpenau.
With his first year of graduate studies at Purdue University already complete, all this 23-year-old has to think about now is track. And with three weekends of postseason competition on his plate, the extra time he now has on his hands will be well spent.
"It's like I'm a professional athlete now," he says with a laugh. "Track is the only thing I have to do, whereas most student-athletes are in class until about 2 p.m., do a little homework, go to practice and then come home and do more homework.
"Now I just wake up in the morning, do a little shaking out, head over to the track in the afternoon and then get ready for the next day. It's nice to just be able to focus on track, but I'm sure I'll find a few other things to do."
Having received his undergraduate degree in industrial engineering, Harpenau is now focusing on an MBA. He says much of his spare time will be spent studying the stock market and catching up on the latest news in the Wall Street Journal and Business Week.
"My grandfather was a financial planner for Lincoln Financial, so I've always had an interest in the market," he says. "I haven't invested a lot of money, but I really do like the financial and energy stocks right now.
"The market is so volatile, but I'm young and I can play around with it a little bit. I'm not going to lose too much money, but I'm not going to make too much either. I'll just jump in, play around and learn my lesson. Hopefully, when I'm older, I'll be a little wiser with my decisions."
Harpenau is also hoping to invest enough time in the hammer throw to make a big payoff in the postseason. This year's Big Ten champion with a personal best toss of 211-1 (64.35 meters), which stands fourth all-time in Purdue history, he also took second in the conference last year and qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships. He took third in the weight throw during this year's Big Ten Indoor Championships and also owns Big Ten bronze medals in both the weight throw and hammer from 2007.
It took Harpenau over a year to surpass his previous personal best of 210-9, but he says he wasn't worried.
"It all comes down to confidence," he says. "In a lot of the meets the weather hasn't been perfect, but that shouldn't be an excuse. The good thing is my bottom number has been consistently around 63 meters and the next best in the Big Ten has been 62. It's no guarantee for success, but having that confidence in my ability and being on a mission certainly helps."
Confidence was not always a strong point for the Tell City, Ind. native, who came to Purdue as a walk-on. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, he was also invited to walk on to the football teams at Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Louisville, but he really didn't have the desire to continue playing football and the lure of receiving an engineering degree from Purdue plus the in-state tuition was too good to pass up.
"I didn't really hate giving up football," says Harpenau, who now tips the scales at 292. "I miss the games, but it was going to take a toll on the body and I certainly don't miss those two-a-day practices. Besides, I still wanted to walk by the time I was 35."
Much of his first two years was spent learning the ropes of the weight and hammer throws, events high school athletes don't compete in.
"Every day something seemed to be going wrong," he says. "Unlike the discus, you're on your heels the entire time. You're on balance and off balance. There were times when I was just trying to stand up in order to get a fair throw. Once you start feeling comfortable, then you can be aggressive and try to get a good distance.
"I'll be honest; I wasn't investing as much time as I am now. Part of that was being a redshirt. But we had an All-American in the hammer (J.P. Smolonski), so being around that kind of talent really opened my eyes. But I never thought I could get to that level."
Yet, there was still a time during his freshman year he didn't think he was making enough progress and thought it was just time to concentrate on his academic load.
"The engineering classes were getting pretty stressful and one day, during lunch, I called my dad and told him I was probably quitting track," he says. "I went over to the coach's office and sat down with (head coach) Jack Warner and (throws coach) Ross Richardson. They simply told me to take the day off and clear my head. I'm certainly glad I stuck with it."
From that point on, Harpenau dedicated himself to getting much stronger in the weight room. In his sophomore year of competition, he took third at the Big Tens in both the weight throw and hammer. And he gives most of the credit for the turnaround to Richardson.
"He (Richardson) really changed my mentality toward track," he says. "He told me I had done the work to be successful. You train in order to win the Big Ten, regional and go to the Nationals."
As a reward for his work and garnering a pair of thirds in the Big Ten meets, Harpenau was placed on scholarship for his final two years of competition. And he no longer competes in the shot put.
"Coach Richardson and I sat down one day and we figured out whether it was worth it to split all my time or just put all my energy into one event," he says. "If I stayed with the shot, my hope would be to just make the finals in the conference meet, where I would only get a point or two for my team. Was it worth it to take the time away from the hammer, where I could be the conference champion and All-American?"
So while most of his teammates are competing in multiple events, Harpenau, who is a team captain, only competes on the first day.
"We have a very young team, so I see my job as coming out on the first day to set the tone for the rest of the team," he says. "I don't get much time to recover because I usually spend the rest of the time on the video camera and cheering on the other runners.
"As a captain, a lot of people look up to me, especially the walk-ons. If I end up sitting and talking on my cell phone all day, they might think I don't care and others may follow the wrong way."
Although he did not make it past the first day of the NCAA Championships last spring, Harpenau believes the experience serves him well for this year.
"I may have been a little tentative last year because I was the last one to qualify," he says. "But I've competed against many of these guys and I'm not in awe of them. A lot of times you get caught up in trying to do something special and it doesn't work out. But just based on what my bottom numbers have been this year, I think I should do all right."
After the NCAA meet, he will probably head out to Charlotte, N.C. to do a second summer of internship with Bank of America. He has also done summer internships with Caterpillar in Peoria, Ill. and Alcoa in Lafayette.
But with one more year left to complete his MBA and no longer having the scholarship money, Harpenau is now looking for a way to supplement his income. He knows he can't count on the stock market just yet.
"I've been hoping to get a graduate assistant job in the athletic department," he says. "I've been talking with the John Purdue Club, which handles all the funding, but they're more interested in people working two years. We'll just have to see what happens."