I am taking a short break from dealing with the Tonya Craft case and the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit in order to highlight some very positive news and to praise a very outstanding athlete. As a University of Tennessee track and cross country alum (1971-75), I take a lot of pride in the accomplishments of people who have worn the Orange Jersey.
The most outstanding athlete at Tennessee this past year, according to sportswriter Mike Strange of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, is Phoebe Wright, who came to UT as a walk-on from Red Bank High School near Chattanooga. Given that there was zero hype when she arrived at campus, as Strange noted, her rise to the position of being one of the most dominant athletes at UT has been amazing.
As one who follows UT track closely, I have not seen the kind of season that Ms. Wright had this last year, ever, at least from a Tennessee track athlete. The only collegiate race she lost all year was a second-place finish in the 500 meters at an indoor meet at Penn State last winter. She is an 800 runner, not a sprinter, and yet her time in that 500 meters was the fifth-fastest collegiate time in history.
Her utter dominance in the 800 meters, not to mention the few times she ran the 1500 meters (and she even won a 400 meter race in collegiate competition) was something for the record books. She had to lead every race, and in high-level meets, it always was the same: someone would hang on her shoulder, and Phoebe would run away down the homestretch.
The great thing was (if one is a UT track fan), is that everyone knew what was going to happen in the last 100 meters. Whether it was at the NCAA indoor championships (in which she blew away a very good field) to the NCAA outdoor championships (in which she blew away a very good field), she led the entire race, had people on her shoulder on the backstretch of the last lap, and then pulled away at the end.
One tipoff to how dominant she was in these major races was the fact that the second-place finishers always stayed in lane one down the stretch. Why is that significant? It is because a person who is trying to win will swing wide so that he or she can pass down the stretch. However, if one remains in lane one, it is saying that the real competition is for second place.
I had the pleasure of running with very dominant athletes at Tennessee, such as Doug Brown, Reggie Jones, and Willie Thomas, all multiple-NCAA champions. However, I never saw any of them have as dominant a season as did Phoebe Wright. Brown came the closest, but even he would admit that Ms. Wright did something special.
She finally lost at the USA championships last Sunday, taking third in 2:00.47, but even that loss has an interesting story and also tells us something about Phoebe's competitiveness. It starts with the situation that UT has an equipment relationship with Adidas, and Phoebe always wore her orange and black Adidas shoes.
However, she had just signed with Nike as a professional, and on Sunday, she had to wear Nike spikes. She was having problems with her new shoes even before the race, and it got worse. At 400 meters, one of the shoes ripped (we call it a "blowout") and in a championship race with the fastest runners in the country, that is more than a little distraction.
First, it means that one has to focus on something other than the race at hand, which is devastating to a serious runner. Second, it slows down one's race; THAT is a given.
On the backstretch, as is shown in the video linked here, you can see her glance to her right and she is passed by a few people, cutting off her momentum and boxing her to the curb.
For most runners, that is a death sentence. First, she lost momentum, and second, she had to focus on waiting for an opening, both of which would devastate most runners. Instead, she slipped to the outside and ultimately came in third, just missing second place.
Would she have won without the shoe blowout? I don't know, but I guarantee that it did not help her. However, she will have many more races, and I fully expect to see her winning national championships at the highest levels and doing well in Europe.
Beyond that are the World Championships next year and the Olympic Games in two years. Phoebe Wright has the capability of making US teams in both events, and I for one will be interested to see how she progresses.
Oh, one more thing. She has a 3.96 average, majoring in hard sciences, and was the recipient of the McWhorter Award from the Southeastern Conference as the outstanding female scholar-athlete this past year. The award has a $15,000 scholarship for graduate study.
I only would add that Phoebe was not simply the best "scholar-athlete" in the SEC; she was the best athlete.