Walking Before You Can Run
Oct. 16, 2006
There is much to be said about the walk-on student-athlete. Indiana head coach Judy Wilson jokes that the only reason she was on the cross country team at Indiana was that legendary Hoosier track coach Sam Bell knew her two older brothers ran track at Purdue.
"There were certainly many days I was last in practice. I always felt like I was on the edge of getting cut, but every year I got a little bit better and most importantly, stayed healthy," explains Wilson.
Years later she found out that she was supposed to be cut, but luckily she never received the letter.
It is an uphill battle for a walk-on. They have to work twice as hard to stand out from their scholarship-receiving teammates. A walk-on athlete is expected to grow and learn, while knowing they may have to wait their turn. It is both a physical and emotional toll trying to balance the fine line between feeling dispensable and vital.
The balancing act was difficult for Wilson, who admitted that it was hard to keep a positive attitude, citing many times when she walked to practice and told herself she was going to quit that day. For reasons unknown to her, she never followed through.
"I knew I just had to make it through the year," said Wilson. "I just had to try to keep up and hang in there. All I could do was come in and just do what the coach told me to do. I think my coach would say that I was pretty coachable."
By her senior year things changed. With All-American Kim Betz sidelined with an injury after Indiana's first meet of the season, Wilson took the unexpected circumstances and decided with no one in front of her she would just run as hard as she could. However, the Hoosiers placed second at the NCAA Regional that year and Wilson missed the NCAA 5K qualifying time by eleven-hundredths of a second. What she did make in time was her mark in Hoosier history. The Oldenburg, Ind, native walked-on to the Hoosier cross country team in 1984, but by the time she left, she had her name littered throughout the school record book. Wilson still ranks among the top five in three events in Indiana history. Those include the 3,000-meter, 5,000-meter and mile events, including the school's fourth-fastest time over the Indiana course. As a senior, she was named team captain and won the Most Improved Athlete Award in addition to the Coaches Award.
It takes a lot of support to wade through the years of blood, sweat and tears for a shot to run in the front of the pack. Wilson remembers those formable early years when she would be the last one at practice. She credits the strong coaching staff, including her mentor Carol Stevenson for her development and continued perseverance.
"Coach Stevenson was a lot like how my mom was with me," Wilson said. "If I talked about how hard something was or said I wanted to quit, my mom would say, `Fine, do it. Quit!' Coach Stevenson knew what to do to motivate me. I could feel that she really cared. She was very good with her athletes in terms of watching and paying attention to her runners needs. If she needed to change a workout that day, she would. I think the flexibility and learning how to adapt to situations is hard for people to pick up on, but coach got it."
Wilson seems to have "got it" too. After various coaching stints at South Florida, DePauw and Connecticut, Wilson returned to Indiana in the fall of 1998 as the women's distance track coach and head women's cross country coach. Since coming back to her alma mater, Wilson has returned the Hoosiers to the national spotlight. In 2002, Indiana finished third in the Big Ten meet as three Hoosier athletes Audrey Giesler, Jessica Gall and Becky Obrecht all earned All-Conference honors. This marked the first time in school history that Indiana had three runners earn postseason honors in the same season, and it marked IU's best Big Ten performance since the 1990 club won the title. The 2002 squad also finished 14th at the NCAA Championships, the best Hoosier finish since a 13th-place finish during the 1990 campaign. Additionally, the IU women cracked the national polls (No. 18) for the first time in 13 years. Overall, Wilson has coached four All-Americans, nine cross country All-Big Ten selections and 24 NCAA qualifiers. This year the Hoosiers have their sights set on the program's fourth NCAA appearance in five seasons, but first they will host the conference men's and women's championships in Bloomington on Oct. 29.
"Coach Wilson relates to people of all different backgrounds in terms of their experience and their success in running," explains recent Hoosier graduate and two time NCAA qualifier, Larra Overton. "She has the ability to relate to girls who have been state champions and national qualifiers in high school just as well as she can relate to someone who is a walk-on from Southern Indiana."
Overton also notes how her former coach successfully communicated with her runners through her direct approach.
"She doesn't sugar coat things. She is very straight forward, but she isn't rude or offensive about it," explains Overton. "I think she really knows how to get her point across and get you to understand the things that you need to change, the adjustments you need to make or the things that you did right."
Like Wilson, Overton dealt with a lot of doubt in the beginning of her career. After sustaining an injury her senior year of high school, Overton signed with IU in the spring of 2001, however, red-shirted during the fall cross country season. Sidelined with injury and unsure of what was expected of her, Overton became discouraged.
"I was just kind of hitting those normal frustrations that come along your first year of any competitive sports at that level," reminisces Overton. "I finally walked up to coach one day at practice and said I just don't feel like this is working right now."
Before Overton could say much more, Wilson stopped her young athlete and told her to go watch the weekend meet before she made her final decision. That weekend Overton watched as the girls she had been training with all fall ran by her and something clicked.
"I knew I could run with them," she said. "I wasn't ready to quit because I knew it would be way too hard not to compete and not be a part of the team. That weekend really convinced me that it was definitely something I wanted to do."
When the following Monday rolled around, Overton walked in confidently into Wilson's office and told her exactly that. Wilson's ability to relate to each one of her players and motivate them in the right way explains her success. She understands both the smiles and the tears, the highs and the lows, and just how much hard work it takes to succeed as well as knowing the feeling of coming up just short. In doing so, Wilson has won the respect of her runners.
"If someone wants to come in and go through everything, I am going to give them a shot," Wilson said. "For me, I stuck with it because I wanted to do it, not because the coach was going to talk to me that day or because of a scholarship opportunity. I just really wanted to see how far I could get."
Wilson says it was luck that got her through her four years of college and the same luck that allowed her the opportunity to break out her senior year. But everyone else can see that it wasn't just luck that got Wilson through her daunting four years at IU or what makes her an amazing inspiring coach today. It was the challenge of the walk-on and the love of her sport that made luck find her.