Alison Wade/New York Road Runners Scholl was an outstanding athlete in soccer, lacrosse and gymnastics before finding her running shoes.

When Georgetown lined up last weekend at the Big East Indoor Track and Field Championships, it did so without someone who has emerged as a key member of the team. Junior Sarah Scholl, a cross country All-American last season, sustained an injury during the team’s opening meet of the indoor season and has been sidelined ever since. As Scholl now continues the process of battling back from her injury, in the hopes of returning for the outdoor season, a team deprived of her intensity and aggressiveness has been forced to compete without her.

Scholl’s personal accomplishments during the most recent cross country season were instrumental to the team’s overall success, and her rise to the top of collegiate distance running is an extraordinary tale. Entering Georgetown a year and a half ago as a transfer, and having never run a season of cross country in her life, Scholl took on a massive new workload, and gradually transformed from a nationally-acclaimed soccer player to a cross country All-American.

Throughout the process, Scholl’s strength, determination and intensity have driven her success. She has amassed a stunning set of accolades and, if all goes according to plan, she’s just getting started.

Champion in the Making

Looking back on her life and her lineage, Sarah Scholl seems almost destined to be where she is today. The granddaughter of an Olympic wrestler, daughter of a two-sport college athlete and sister of a standout high school lacrosse player, she is the product of both the genetics and nurturing of an athletic family.

As a child, Scholl excelled in a variety of sports. At age seven, her gymnastic ability took her to the national championships. At age nine, her soccer team won a state championship. In fifth grade gym class, she set her elementary school’s record for pull-ups.

“Sarah’s always been very competitive and physically-oriented,” Scholl’s elementary school teacher, and longtime friend Jay Egan said. “Whatever she’s doing, she always does it to the n-th degree.”

For Scholl, success in just one arena was not enough. When a former gymnastics coach insisted she give up soccer to devote more time to gymnastics, she refused. She didn’t want to be limited to one activity, and as she continued to develop as an athlete, she consistently demonstrated her versatility by juggling multiple sports in the same season – with both a high degree of success and a tolerance for the taxing physical demands it placed upon her.

High Achievement

When Scholl entered New Canaan High School in Connecticut her freshman year, she took it by storm and picked up All-County honors during the fall soccer season. After running indoor track in the winter, she came to a fork in the road in the spring.

Her choice came down to lacrosse and outdoor track. She had played lacrosse her whole life, but as a matter of school policy, freshmen at New Canaan were not permitted to play on the varsity team. Refusing to accept the team’s precept, Scholl decided to stare the challenge in the face and try out for the lacrosse team.

In a twist of irony, it was Scholl’s phenomenal speed that took her away from the track and toward the lacrosse field. During tryouts, she beat everyone vying for a spot on the team in a timed mile, and out-hustled people three years her elder in drills. That season, as the first freshman at New Canaan to ever make the varsity lacrosse team, she helped guide the team to a state championship. To make the feat more compelling, Scholl was simultaneously playing premier league soccer at the time. That season her team, the Weston Wildthing, went on to win the National Championship in its age bracket.

But the drain of playing multiple contact sports during the same season proved to be too much.

“I decided that in order play soccer, I couldn’t play lacrosse, so I had to do track during the spring,” Scholl said. “That’s why I ended up with just soccer and track.”

Dropping lacrosse and specializing on just two sports brought about even bigger and better accomplishments.

During her sophomore year, Scholl’s indoor 4 x 800m relay team placed third in the nation. Junior year, she ran a 5:03 mile to win an individual state championship. All the while, she was still balancing track with soccer.

“Outdoors was really hard for me because I was playing soccer at the same time, and I would go from a four-day soccer tournament, and the next day, I’d have the state championship in track,” Scholl said. “I’d be so sore. I can remember standing on the line, thinking, `if I can get through this mile – just get through it – then I’ll be OK.’ And then I ended up beating everybody. I had dead legs before I even began – it was kind of a disadvantage – but it was worth it because I loved soccer so much, and I loved track and I couldn’t choose.”

The physical demands of playing two sports during the same season were difficult, but, according to Scholl, not the biggest challenge.

“I’d have to get up before school and run in the mornings, and then right after school, I couldn’t go home, I’d go right out to practice before my track team got there and do my workouts, and then leave before everyone else got on the track to go drive an hour to soccer practice. I wouldn’t get home until about nine o’clock at night. We practiced at Yale and that was the toughest thing – the commute.”

Scholl closed out her high school career with back-to-back state championships in the mile and 4 x 800m relay. Her premier soccer team finished second in the nation later that spring, in a game that would eventually prove to have a lasting impact on her future direction in athletics.

Rebuilding

With the intent of playing two sports in college, Scholl decided to attend Colgate University in the fall.

“Sarah was a top-notch high school athlete and was heavily recruited in both soccer and track,” Colgate Assistant Track and Field Coach Bernie Empie said.

She arrived at Colgate eager to begin the fall soccer season, but discovered on the first day of practice that an injury she obtained while making a slide tackle during Weston’s championship game was much more serious than she originally thought. She underwent surgery that fall on her knee and, while sidelined, had time to contemplate her plans for the future.

“My freshman year, I was thinking a lot about how much running meant to me,” Scholl said. “I always had a dream of becoming a triathlete, so I evaluated everything in my mind. The way I play soccer, I’m like kamikaze on the field, so I knew I was going to hurt myself again in four years. And track would help me the most to become a tri-athlete, so I decided that I really wanted to pursue track.”

Scholl returned to action for the indoor and outdoor track seasons, and set Colgate’s freshman school record in the mile. She felt something was lacking, though. After making the decision to give up soccer, she began to search beyond Colgate for a more intensive running program. Georgetown came to mind.

“When she told me she was going to transfer from Colgate to Georgetown, I was a little afraid for her, because she didn’t have the history of running at the level of Georgetown’s distance runners,” Egan said. “I asked if she thought she could handle it, and her response was, `I’ll never know how good I can be unless I can go out and compete with the best athletes I can find.'”

Throughout her life Scholl had garnered some pretty impressive accomplishments, but she had never raced for any distance over a mile, or even stepped onto a cross country course. And in 2001, Georgetown had the nation’s No. 3 team.

“I didn’t care if I was going to be one of the bottom on the pack,” Scholl said. “I wanted to have people better than me, so I could train and see how fast I could get. If you have people pushing you every day, then you have something to strive for. And I needed that. I needed someplace to go where I could be pushed to my limits every day.”

The decision didn’t come as a huge surprise to Scholl’s track coach at Colgate.

“Sarah exhibited the telltale signs that coaches look for to go to the next level in her running,” Empie said. “She had the attitude, desire and work ethic to put in the mileage, and that takes a different type of personality than anyone’s given. She never underestimated herself and was always looking beyond. She wasn’t satisfied with being the best athlete on her team or in the conference – she always looked toward getting to the next level.”

In the fall of 2001, Scholl became a Hoya.

Growing Pain

On the first day of practice at Georgetown, Scholl went through a workout unlike any she had ever experienced.

“We ran three miles as a warmup, and I think I [set a personal record],” Scholl said. “At Colgate, our warmup would be a lap around the track.”

The talented Georgetown distance runners also provided the competition in practice that Scholl was seeking.

“That’s why I came here – to be pushed,” Scholl said. “I wanted people to beat me in workouts. I wanted to be shoved in the dirt and left in the dust, because all that just made me work harder.”

In comparison to past training, the new workload was enormous, and adjusting to the increased demands of a top-level distance program meant a dramatic change in training habits.

“In high school, I did 20 miles per week, then at Colgate, there wasn’t a lot of change – I started off slowly because I was just coming back from my knee surgery. I started at 25 miles per week, and I don’t think got up to more than 40. I took Sundays off and Thursdays we were in the pool, so it was very low mileage. And then I came here, and immediately over the summer got up to 55 and stayed there the whole fall season. But it’s not just the mileage. The workouts were a million times more intense.”

Gradually, Georgetown’s demanding practices helped Scholl build her endurance, and begin what would turn out to be an amazing transformation from high school soccer to championship-level cross country.

“I had that speed, but the base took a long time to develop,” Scholl said. “I never had a chance to do that, but when I came here, I was completely focused. My goals had shifted to just one sport, so all my energy went into running.”

The hard work produced encouraging initial results, as Scholl placed 20th in her debut cross country race at the Mt. St. ary’s Invitational.

“That was like a blind race for me – I had no idea what to expect,” Scholl said. “I had never raced not being on a track and I had never raced more than a mile, so I didn’t know how it was going to feel. I remember thinking to myself while I was running, `pretend you’re on a soccer field and just chase the ball.'”

Scholl continued to improve as the year progressed, and she closed out the cross country season with a 16th place finish at the ECAC Championships.

She narrowly missed scoring points in the 3,000m and the mile at the Big East Indoor Championships, and entered the outdoor season with a clear agenda.

“I knew I wanted to do the steeplechase, and I ended up liking the longer distances a lot,” Scholl said.

The steeplechase became Scholl’s specialty, and she ran it often and increasingly well throughout the outdoor season. She claimed a first place finish in the event at the Virginia Invitational and had a breakout run on one of the grandest stages of them all – the 2002 Penn Relays – where she placed second in her section and, with a time of 10:55.24, set a new school record.

Chasing Perfection

With a year of Georgetown distance running experience under her belt, a school record in the steeplechase and a summer spent running 60 miles per week, Scholl entered last cross country season poised for success.

She made an immediate statement by finishing second on the team during the season opener at the Great Meadows Invitational. She later placed third for the team at the Great American Cross Country Festival, fifth at Pre-Nationals, and seventh at the Big East Championships before fully emerging as one of the nation’s top runners by leading the team at the Mid-Atlantic Regionals, and later claiming All-American honors at the National Championships.

“It was a great, great performance – the last couple of meets of the cross country season, and a great performance at the national meet,” Georgetown’s Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Ron Helmer said. “She ran at very nearly, if not 100 percent of the level that she had prepared to run. A lot of people, if they would go to the national meet and do that, would have chances to be All-Americans, but it’s a very difficult thing to do. And the difference is she did that. She prepared, she worked very hard, and then when she got to the national meet, and it really counted, she performed at her best level.”

Considering that she entered college as a soccer player, with purely middle-distance running experience, becoming a cross country All-American in just her second season in the sport was a staggering accomplishment.

“A lot of it was putting the work back in place without the distractions of another sport,” Helmer said. “And that doesn’t take place over six months or twelve months. I think we were pretty fortunate for that to happen over the course of two years. I think she gradually started to find out how good she could be, what her work tolerances are, and what her motivation level is.”

Scholl had a dream of becoming one of the nation’s preeminent distance runners, and two seasons of training at Georgetown was all she needed to make that dream a reality. Sarah Scholl the star soccer player had now transformed into Sarah Scholl the star distance runner.

“I think it was a more of a gradual evolution or gravitation to what she really was,” Helmer said. “In high school, she was a soccer player and more of a middle distance runner, but, physiologically, she is probably more of a distance runner. She found something that she’s well suited to, and ultimately, it may prove that as a middle distance runner she might be pretty good, and as a distance runner, she might be very, very good.”

Next Steps

“I knew that one day the work was going to pay off, and I’m so happy to see some results, but I’m not finished yet,” Scholl said. “I had some success this year, but I feel like that’s just the tip of the iceberg with what I want to do. I’ve already basically put it behind me and I’m ready to keep looking forward and keep working hard.”

In her first race this indoor season, Scholl ran the 5,000m in a blistering 16:36.26 for an NCAA provisional qualification. However, while on track to add yet another accomplishment to her resume, Scholl sustained an iliotibial band injury in practice before winter break and was forced to redshirt the remainder of the season. For Scholl, the pain of the injury is outweighed by the frustration of not being able to compete.

When she regains her health – the date of which is still uncertain at this point – Scholl hopes to continue building her endurance and compete in the steeplechase again during the outdoor season. After graduation, Scholl said she plans to continue training – ideally in the mountains of Colorado – and chase her next dream of becoming an Olympic triathlete.

“I think that triathlons are the ultimate test of athletic ability, and that’s what I’m really striving for,” Scholl said. “I want to strive to be as strong as I can.”

Her strength and determination have taken her this far. Wherever the road ultimately leads, Sarah Scholl will be moving full speed ahead.

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