Jan. 16, 2007
At the University of Iowa, its best athlete doesn't swing a bat, wear a helmet or swish buzzer-beaters. Fans and alumni can't buy her jersey and few probably know her name.
But none of that matters to Kineke Alexander. It only makes her want to run faster.
The junior track star has made her claim as one of the school's best-ever in only two seasons after becoming Iowa's first NCAA sprint champion last March. But even though the Iowa star has always been a quick study, a relentless passion and pursuit of perfection has pushed her a long way from the park near her childhood home in the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent where she started galloping laps as a 5-year-old.
Growing up, Alexander did not find success as easily as she would have liked. When she started competing at 8, the other girls towered over her.
After she finally hit her growth spurt in high school, Alexander stepped up her training and erupted onto the international track scene in just four years.
"I started out this skinny girl running around the track, but I knew I was hooked on running when I first went to the [Central American Caribbean] games," Alexander explained. "I thought this is what I want, so I kept competing and training until I got better."
Head coach James Grant, who is also a Caribbean native, was also at that CAC Championship in Puerto Rico when Alexander was only 15 years old. As soon as he spotted Alexander, the Hawkeyes' mentor knew he had found the next great Iowa track star.
"I thought, this young lady has got to have something," Grant said. "Her physique and her age and how she looked. She looked very good in the first half of a race so I thought with maturity and good training she'd be something special."
Grant sent a questionnaire to Alexander's high school, and the Hawkeye prodigy found her home and path to elite success.
"I didn't know a thing about Iowa," Alexander said. "Now, I know Iowa is for me. Being here is the start of my dreams coming true."
Far from her home in Saint Vincent, Alexander adapted to the noise of dorm life, the bustling pedestrian traffic, and the harsh Iowa winters with the support of teammates and coaches. But while leaving her mom, two younger brothers and an average year-round temperature of 80 degrees was not easy, Alexander had no trouble adjusting to life on the track.
She burst on the Big Ten and national scenes as a rookie. After finishing as runner-up in 400 meters at the 2005 Big Ten Championships, Alexander raced to All-American honors, placing sixth in the event at the NCAA Indoor Championships. She doubled that feat in the outdoor championships after running a then-school record 51.71 in the event semifinals.
"She's a trooper. She took every thing in stride and adjusted fairly quickly," said Grant. "Each time out she was running personal bests. I realized right then she was going to be a special person. From her freshman year, she has progressed much more than I had ever imagined. She's going to go a long, long way."
Grant was right. All of that was merely a glimpse of what Alexander had in store.
At the 2006 Big Ten Indoor Championships, Alexander dashed to her first titles in the conference meet with victories in the 200- and 400-meter races, but it wasn't the gold medal at the finish line that made her win so special. It was how she got there.
In the preliminaries of the 400, Alexander finished first in her heat but ran a 57.23. In the event finals the next day, Alexander was slotted in the "slow" heat.
"After the prelim I told her that she was pretty much going to be on her own," said Grant. "She was just going to have to go out and take control of the race early if she intended to win because she wasn't going to have any competition in that first final heat. I said you have a choice, you just have to go out and run your race and take charge early."
She responded to Grant's advice by erasing almost five seconds from her time and winning the event with a 52.31 finish. The career-performance also rewrote the Big Ten Championships and schools recordbooks.
At the NCAA Indoor Championships, Alexander's preliminary time earned her a spot in the fast heat, but at the last minute it changed and the Hawkeye was bumped down to the slower heat. Again.
Without hesitation, Alexander sprinted to another title, becoming Iowa's fourth NCAA individual champion and the first Hawkeye sprinter to win a national title.
"I had to change up my strategy a bit for that slow heat but I just went out there and ran it in my mind really," Alexander said. "I was very happy. I knew I had made it, but it will only get better from here."
The 2006 outdoor brought even more hardware to Alexander's dorm room, but the success was not a guarantee.
After claiming 400-meter titles at the Drake Relays and Mt. San Antonio Community College Relays, Alexander was pulled from the finals at the Big Ten Championships with a nagging injury. The Hawkeyes' star posted the second-fastest preliminary time in the 200 meters and clocked the fourth-best finish in the 400, but Grant decided that competing in the cold and wet conditions would be too risky.
Alexander responded to the setback with a vengeance, claiming the Midwest Regional title to qualify for a shot at an NCAA sweep of the 400 meters.
The Hawkeye closed her sophomore season within steps of another national title. She sped through the final turn of the 400-meter final at the NCAA Outdoor Championships but Texas A&M junior Clora Williams edged her in the final moments by two-tenths of a second. Although Alexander is still pining for that second gold, her silver-medal finish of 51.35 smashed her personal best and set a new school record.
The university honored her endeavors by nominating her for Big Ten Athlete of the Year ahead of hundreds of other Hawkeye athletes.
"That meant a whole lot. It meant that she was outstanding, far more so than any athlete in all our programs," said Grant. "For the track program that says a lot for our other sports teams to take notice that the track athletes are doing extremely well."
"One of the things I wanted to work on last year was running the 400," she said. "I did improve, but I'm not there yet but I'm getting there. I'm close."
Grant says Alexander's biggest hurdle this season will not be crunching numbers to set new personal bests but handing all of the pressure that comes with such break-out success. Much like her transition into running elite, Alexander didn't waste any time adjusting to that pressure.
In her first meet of the indoor season, the junior sprinter shattered the school's 20-year-old record and her own 600-meter standard with a collegiate-best time of 1:27.84. Alexander's performance eclipsed the previous record set by Senta Hawkins by more than three seconds.
As much as Alexander's success has done for Grant's program at Iowa, it has meant even more to St. Vincent.
In 2004, she claimed 400-meter gold at the Central America and the Caribbean Junior Championships. Later she set a junior-national record with her silver medal-finish (53.83) at the CARIFTA Games, an annual event in Bermuda that hosts the best under-20 athletes from Central America and the Caribbean. In honor of her international acclaim, Alexander was honored as the Junior Female Sports Personality of the Year by the National Sports Council of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The country's prime minister presented her with the award.
"He just encouraged me," Alexander said. "He said go out there and represent us and do your best."
And she did, without missing a step.
In 2005, she set another national standard at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif., sprinting to a career-best 52.73-second finish to claim gold in the 400-meter event. It's the 15th-fastest time in the world and also the St. Vincent record.
"She is about the best thing coming out of St. Vincent," Grant said. "She is already the star of her country."
Alexander's success virtually assures her of a spot on her nation's Olympic team, which will travel to the 2008 Beijing Games, but the history major, who also has big ambitions for law, is already focused on other future plans. While she hopes for a post-college professional career, Alexander would also love to return to her homeland to coach younger kids and give back to the community.
But luckily for Grant and the Hawkeyes, Alexander has two more years of record-shattering left in her.
"She has such tremendous potential," Grant said. "I think now she has added pressure, that now everybody knows who she is. I think everybody will be gunning for her, but so far I think she's handled that pretty well. She's been training well so I think she's ready for all of the challenges.
"I don't think she even realizes how much potential she has because she's still learning to compete at this level. The best has yet to come."
Remember that name. It's rewriting Iowa history.