By Carl Little
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Sarah Bowman slinked away from the finish line on a hot afternoon last April. With the Tennessee track standout running the anchor leg each time, the Volunteers had placed second for the third time in as many days at the Penn Relays, coming up short by a total of 2.7 seconds. While listening to the howl of 49,981 spectators, one of the largest crowds she had ever seen at a track and field meet, Bowman brooded over three of the slimmest margins of defeat in her career.
The Penn Relays, whose 22,000 athletes per year outnumber those competing at the Olympic Games, once meant happier days for Bowman, now a Lady Vols senior. The event is where the eight-time All-Met and 2005 Fauquier High graduate burst into national prominence. She won the girls' mile in 2004 with the third-fastest time in meet history, then took it again the following year. When the 115th Penn Relays get underway on Thursday, she will step onto the track at Franklin Field in Philadelphia for the final time as an amateur and start her chase of the three crowns -- the 4x800-meter relay, 4x1,500-meter relay and distance medley relay -- that eluded her a year ago.
"I never want to come to Penns again and not take home a single victory," Bowman said. "I'm better able to handle it physically and mentally. I think I'm stronger."
That strength is forged in rigorous private practices and yields splendid rewards. At the NCAA indoor championships last month, she won the mile in 4 minutes 29.72 seconds, breaking the 20-year-old meet record and lowering the school record she already owned by nearly five seconds. At the U.S. Olympic trials last summer, Bowman became the only female college runner to reach the final in the 1,500 meters.
Little has slowed Bowman on her remarkable ascent. In January 2008, she climbed onto a stationary bike four days after undergoing emergency surgery to have her appendix removed.
"I really have a tenacity for it. I love competing and I love racing," said Bowman, 22. "I just like pushing myself and making myself better."
Even as a high school junior, when Mike Byrnes became her personal coach, Bowman was interested in testing her limits, pushing herself to see what would happen. She found out during her first workout with Byrnes, who, as co-meet director of Nike Nationals, has evaluated national, world and Olympic champions while they were still amateurs. When it was over, she collapsed to her hands and knees, panting.
It wasn't a particularly difficult workout, Byrnes remembered. He took her out to a field behind Fauquier High and told Bowman to run for five minutes and walk for four, then run for four minutes and walk for three. When she got down to a minute of running and rest, Byrnes had her perform the exercise in reverse.
He cautioned Bowman not to go too hard.
"Of course, being a young, unschooled runner, she went too fast early and at the end was really hurting," Byrnes said. "But she didn't quit. I sensed really then that we might have a winner here."
Bowman's parents, Gary and Gail Bowman, sensed it, too, even if they didn't quite know what to do with it when Bowman was a preteen playing in the Washington Area Girls Soccer league. All they knew was she would hardly ever tire while running up and down the field. They decided to see how far and how fast she could go.
Gail took her daughter to youth track meets along the East Coast, and when Bowman was a high school sophomore, they found their way to Nike Indoor Nationals in Landover. Bowman surprised the field by winning the mile, even though she had played in a soccer tournament 24 hours earlier.
"We didn't know you shouldn't play soccer the day before," laughed Gail, a business teacher at Fauquier High. "I was her so-called coach and had no idea what to do for training. To prepare for the mile, we decided to run five laps because it was further than the mile, so she should be able to run the four laps without getting tired.
"We learned together."
Bowman caught on fast, garnering copious local and national high school accolades. Now, the 2008 NCAA Division I indoor scholar-athlete of the year and an eight-time college all-American will graduate as one of Tennessee's most prolific track athletes. Her nine Southeastern Conference indoor championships are most in school history by a female runner.
"There's a very rich tradition here, and Sarah's doing things that no one has ever done at the University of Tennessee," said J.J. Clark, in his seventh year as coach at Tennessee. "She's right there at the top with some great, great company."
Said David Johnson, meet director of the Penn Relays for the past 14 years: "She's been well coached for a long period of time. She's got a good and a competitive spirit in her."
With all of the rigors Byrnes has put Bowman through, getting her to accept that she is a special athlete has been the hardest lesson to teach, he said. As the youngest of three children, one raised to appreciate simple values by a father who's a scientist and a mother who's a teacher, modesty comes more naturally to Bowman than swagger. But Byrnes believes she has to develop more confidence if she is to tap deeper into the massive potential that could lead her to the top of the medal podium at the 2012 Olympics in London.
"It's very difficult for someone who has been well raised to begin to think in terms of, 'I am the greatest high school runner that has ever lived,' " Byrnes said. "Now suddenly she's faced with the prospect that she can be the greatest adult runner in the history of the United States. When you begin to realize that, you begin to realize where Sarah Bowman is having to come from."