The Face of a Program
May 20, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Penn State's Beth Alford-Sullivan knew six years ago that Shana Cox had the potential to become the face of the Nittany Lion track and field program. However, when she first welcomed Cox to the State College campus as one of the nation's top recruits, Alford-Sullivan saw a different kind of face in Cox.
"She looked like a chipmunk," she said. "Shana couldn't talk at all because she had just had her wisdom teeth removed, so her face was really swollen."
In fact Cox had all four wisdom teeth pulled just two days prior to her scheduled visit to Penn State.
Still, Alford-Sullivan knew that if she could convince Cox to become a Nittany Lion, the highly-touted standout would have an opportunity to accomplish great things at the school.
Fifteen individual Big Ten titles and eight All-America distinctions later, Cox is set to leave the program not only as the face of the program that Alford-Sullivan had once envisioned, but also as a model for all future Nittany Lions to follow.
"She encompasses everything you want a student-athlete to be," said Alford-Sullivan. "Her blood, sweat and tears have made us who we are today, and that's a championship-caliber team. We owe a lot to her."
The Penn State mentor goes on to say how tough it has been for individually this past year, having to come to terms that Cox will no longer be an active member of the team at season's end. She has found herself cheering for Cox in each and every race this year more than she ever has before.
Including this past weekend.
With wins in the 200 meters and 400 meters, as well as serving as the anchor of the victorious 4x400-meter relay squad, Cox earned her 13th, 14th and 15th career conference titles and helped Penn State to just the second league crown in school history.
"Overall we came a way with the victory knowing we did everything we needed to do," Cox said. "This team has experienced a lot of disappointment in the past couple of years, but we just persevered and had great execution."
In last weekend's 400-meter final, Cox recorded her third career championship in the event with a season-best time of 52:00. Her time was not only a new Illinois facility record, but also the fourth-fastest mark in the country. She also registered a personal best of 23.15 by running away from the field in the 200 meters.
But the 400 meters is definitely the marquee event for Cox and the lone thing she has yet to accomplish is a national championship. Both Cox and Alford-Sullivan feel the fifth-year senior has prepared well enough to make a serious run at the title this year. Last season at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, Cox finished runner-up in the event after receiving several weekly conference honors throughout the regular season. While those accolades meant a great deal to Cox, she admits the runner-up finish left her with a sense that the year was incomplete.
She has since used that runner-up finish as motivation this season and feels a national championship would complete her career. This past indoor campaign she placed fourth at nationals in the event - her best result in NCAA Indoor Championship competition and proof she is poised to reach her ultimate goal.
"After my season ended last year, I knew what that motivating force was going to be for this season," she said. "I knew there was one last thing I had to do and that was to win a national championship in the 400."
Cox has been running for as long as she can remember. Being the only sister to three brothers, she grew up in Westbury, N.Y., often participating in the same sports as her siblings. Her oldest brother became involved in track, and so did she. When he moved to University Park to attend Penn State, Cox knew that one day she might as well.
Family has been very important to Cox during her time at Penn State. Not only has her team been a second family to her, but she has been able to see her parents at almost every meet. Sandy and Valerie Cox have watched their daughter be successful on the track through the years, yet Cox still feels she needs to prove to them that she is in fact making something of herself while at college.
When asked what she has done with the 15 Big Ten medals she has captured over her career, Cox quickly replied that all 15 are in the hands of her father.
"My dad comes to all my track meets and I just have a habit of getting my medals and giving them right to him," she said. "I enjoy them for five minutes and then they go right home and I don't get to see them again."
There is another reason for that as well.
"I don't want to look at them and have this sense of complacency," she said. "I don't want to look at them and see what I have accomplished. I want to keep my focus on what is left to accomplish."
It's Cox's composure and humility that Alford-Sullivan will always remember. She says her leader conducts herself in a manner in which few college kids can. She says Cox is not only a champion, but a class act in everything she does.
When looking back on her storied career, Cox admits she has had a lot of fun and could not imagine any other similar life experience.
"I have been blessed with the accomplishments I have had and I don't take that for granted," she said. "I have grown so much as a person and in terms of my success, to me it's a lesson learned where if you set goals, work hard and execute, good things will happen."
Last year Cox completed her undergraduate studies in psychology and is currently working on a Masters in human resource management. She says while she's looking forward to the "real world," it can wait a while. Running is still in the picture and she is focused on the upcoming NCAA Championships and Olympic qualifiers this summer.
Alford-Sullivan points to her leader as a model for what she envisions a student-athlete experiencing at Penn State. She has had unparalleled success on the track and has achieved academic excellence in the classroom.
Whether or not she earns that elusive national championship next month, Cox will leave Penn State will a resume proving Alford-Sullivan's initial belief from when she first recruited her six years ago.
"Shana has been the face of our program since she got here," she said. "She has not only been a leader in the school records book, the point tally, and the end results, but she's been the face of what we are all about."