Interviews by Justin Long
Eight members of the Class of 2012 will defend NCAA titles this winter with hopes of ending their collegiate careers on a high note. They are runner Ben Scheetz (800-meter), swimmer Ryan Lichtenfels (500-yard freestyle) and six women’s basketball teammates: Lem Atanga McCormick, Shannon Finucane, Kim Fiorentino, Jackie Renner, Livia Rizzo and Caroline Stedman. By email, we asked some of them about the days they were crowned national champions and what it’s like to head into the season with targets on their backs. Here are our favorite three answers to each question.
What’s your favorite moment from the day you won the national title?
Scheetz: “Right after the results were displayed, my coach ran over, gave me a hug and said, ‘Nice job, dude.’ That was when I knew that I’d done something a little bit special—he has high expectations, and most of the time his post-race talks focus on how to improve. There’s also a rumor that my dad was jumping up and down. I’ve never seen him get that excited over my running.”
Lichtenfels: “The final lap of the race was definitely my most memorable part of that day. Whenever I have a great race I enter a kind of tunnel vision where I block out everything going on around me. By the time I hit the last wall, the roar of the crowd and the competitors around me became a mere afterthought—in my mind, I was the only person swimming in the pool.”
Fiorentino: “I will never forget jumping into Lem’s arms after she scored her ‘and-one.’ I was just so happy. I don’t think she was expecting it, but I am glad she caught me.”
What went through your head when you realized you’d won?
Scheetz: “‘Cool. Now where is the trash can so I don’t vomit on the track?’”
Fiorentino: “I was the one with the ball with 10 seconds left in the game, and the only thing that was going through my head was, ‘Do not stop dribbling.’ ”
Finucane: “‘We finally did it.’”
What were you thinking as you were posing with the trophy?
Scheetz: “I was trying not to smile too much. Based on the pictures, I succeeded.”
Lichtenfels: “I saw my mom up in the stands smiling back at me and couldn’t help but think how happy she was to finally see me win a national championship in person.”
Finucane: “This is the best day of my life.”
What’s the best text message you received that day?
Lichtenfels: “My favorite text message that day came from Ryan Colby ’11, who simply said, ‘Atta boy, Lich—Giddy up.’ ”
Fiorentino: “My favorite was probably from my best friend from home. She was abroad in Spain and stayed up the whole night to watch my game live.”
Finucane: “My brother was sick and couldn’t make the trip to Illinois. When I got back to the locker room he had texted me that he loved me and that he was so proud of me that he cried.”
How did you sleep that night?
Lichtenfels: “Like a baby.”
Atanga McCormick: “It took me forever to fall asleep. I kept waking up and reliving the last moments of the game—the adrenaline was still rushing at 4 in the morning!”
Finucane: “I never sleep well during basketball season because I have a tendency to overthink everything at night. Let’s just say there was no more thinking that needed to be done.”
How long did it take to sink in that you were a national champion?
Lichtenfels: “Not until about a week after the fact when I got to proudly display the trophy on my desk back at school.”
Atanga McCormick: “I’m not too sure it has sunk in yet. Maybe the rings will help.”
Finucane: “It is still sinking in. It will be forever sinking in.”
What is your biggest personal challenge heading into the 2011–12 season?
Scheetz: “Staying healthy has always been the hardest part of running for me. Injuries aren’t something that you can avoid by training harder or smarter.”
Lichtenfels: “The running joke is that every year I get some mysterious illness either before or during season, so the goal is to stay healthy for my last year (*knocks on wood*).”
Stedman: “First-years always play an integral role on the team, and I believe getting them to recognize this and embrace it will be the biggest challenge.”
Do you feel there is less pressure to win another title because you’ve already done it, or more pressure because people are expecting you to repeat?
Scheetz: “There’s definitely more pressure. The standard’s been set, so if I lose, everyone will wonder what went wrong.”
Fiorentino: “I feel that there is definitely more pressure to repeat this year. Winning made me work harder in the offseason because now I know how great it feels to win, and I absolutely want to have that feeling again.”
Atanga McCormick: “If anything, we have to train that much harder because we all know that everyone will be circling Amherst on their game schedules.”
What is the most important thing you can pass on to the first-years on your team?
Scheetz: “Work as hard as you can, but don’t let sports consume you. This is a mistake that I think many athletes, including myself, make. I started seeing far more success when I relaxed a little bit.”
Stedman: “Never lose your confidence.”
Finucane: “Believe something is possible, then work as hard as you possibly can to achieve it.”
“Even if I don’t repeat as a national champion, my senior year will be a success if...”
Scheetz: “…I run some of the times I’ve set as goals. Also, getting a job would be nice.”
Stedman: “…we are in contention for another national title.”
Fiorentino: “…I have as much fun as I’ve had in the past three seasons.”
What’s the biggest reason people should count on you repeating in 2012?
Scheetz: “Last year was kind of just a practice round for this year.”
Lichtenfels: “I got the team on my back.”
Finucane: “There are six seniors [now on the team] who have been to the Final Four every year they have been at Amherst, and they are not about to let their guard down.”
Photos by Rob Mattson