Checking in on Amherst's Almost-Olympians
Contact: Justin Long
Ben Scheetz '12
Kendra Stern '11
AMHERST, Mass. – With the opening ceremonies for the 2012 Olympic Games approaching, we caught up with two former Amherst College student-athletes who participated in the U.S. Olympic Trials last month.
On June 22, Ben Scheetz ’12 competed in the 800-meter run in Eugene, Ore., with some of the greatest track & field athletes in the world. Four days later and roughly 1,400 miles away, Kendra Stern ’11 went up against some of the world’s best swimmers in Omaha, Neb., competing in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter freestyle events.
Scheetz and Stern are arguably the most successful track and swimming student-athletes in Amherst’s history. They each know a thing or two about winning national titles and posting the fastest times in NCAA Division III history, while some of their school records may never be broken.
Although neither Amherst alumnus qualified for this year’s Olympic Games in London, each got the chance to experience something few Division III student-athletes get to experience. Roughly one month later, here is what Scheetz and Stern had to say in response to 10 questions about the Olympic Trials.
During your first year at Amherst, did you ever think that you could one day be competing for a spot in the Olympics?
Kendra: If you ask anyone who knows me, they will probably tell you that I always underestimate my potential. My freshman year at Amherst I had no idea I was capable of winning anything—so, the idea that I could take an entire year to train seriously to compete at Olympic Trials in 2012 would have been completely unbelievable.
Ben: Sort of. If things went well, I thought I had a very good shot. My confidence waned over the following two years as I got hurt and sick. I never really gave up hope, but there was definitely a point of reflection after my sophomore year—maybe I am being unrealistic...maybe I ought to reevaluate some things.
Do you remember when competing at such a high level became a reality for you?
Kendra: I think it hit me when I went to a Grand Prix meet in Michigan in April 2011. That was the first meet where I left the Amherst/Division III bubble and I was pitted against some of the big name swimmers you hear about as Olympians or members of the national team. I got three Olympic Trials cuts in Michigan, and the idea that I could take a year and train for that meet became a serious option for me.
Ben: It probably was my senior year of high school when I went from a 1:58 guy to a 1:53 guy in something like three weeks. That signaled I had some potential if I actually worked at it. During my junior year [at Amherst] things started clicking. I had talked with Ned about if/when he thought I'd be ready to run sub-1:50, a milestone for half-milers. I split 1:49.4 in the DMR that weekend, and it shocked me a little bit. A few weeks later I was running an open 800 against one of the best collegiate guys in the country. All I wanted was to replicate the 1:49 in an open race—I ended up running 1:48.08.
Did you set any specific goals or have any expectations for yourself at the Trials?
Kendra: I did have some goals, but ultimately I found that all of the work I put into my training and all of the experiences leading up to the trials were more important and meaningful than the meet itself. I learned a lot during my training over the past year, and I tried to think about the Trials as a celebration of everything that I've been through, rather than as a "make it or break it" moment.
Ben: Of course—win! But seriously, after I ran 1:47, I figured I had as good a shot as anyone of making the finals. That was in February when [Amherst head coach Ned Nedeau] wasn't training me to run fast. I thought I ought to be in even better shape by June and ready to compete with anyone. I injured my foot right after that, but I still thought I had plenty of time. Unfortunately, it never really healed and I couldn't train much. Ned and I made it work as best we could, but I was far from the place I was in February. By the time I got to the Trials, I'd had to revise my expectations to more of, "Enjoy the experience and have fun.”
Did you have anyone with you at the Trials? What did it mean to have them in attendance?
Kendra: In addition to [Amherst head coach Nick Nichols] and [Amherst assistant coach Karin Brown], both my parents and my sister, Meaghan, were there in Omaha to support me. It was really special to have everyone there with me because they invested just as much as I did into the whole experience.
Ben: Ned came with me and took care of all of the logistics: plane tickets, hotels, the car, etc. That by itself was so helpful. But he's also been through all of this stuff before, many times, and had tons of advice to give. He’s just been incredibly supportive, firmly believing (and none too shy about saying) I could make a comeback when I was wondering if my season was over. I'm really glad he came out, but I don’t think I’m eloquent enough to capture how much so in words. Hopefully he realizes what it means to me. Also, Ned and I ran into an alum, Tom Hickey ’74. That was a pleasant surprise! I know he communicates with Ned a lot about how the team is doing, and I’ve actually talked with him a bunch at the Philadelphia summer gatherings, so I’m glad he came up and said hi.
Was there a moment that made you stop and think, “Whoa…I’m at the Olympic Trials”?
Kendra: I think I had one of those moments every time I walked into the swimming facilities in Omaha! Everything that went into the production of the meet was so astounding that it was hard to forget that you were at such an important event where there was so much at stake for so many people.
Ben: Yes and no. There was a “whoa” moment when I walked out of the athlete hospitality tent one day and wasn’t paying attention. I almost walked into Olympic gold medalist LaShawn Merritt warming up around the field. There was a “whoaaaa” moment when I got on the track before the race and saw all the spectators cheering. But no, I never really got the, “Oh my gosh, I’m competing against X person who has done this, this, and that” sensation. Ned and I worked a lot on the psychological aspect. I’ve gotten pretty good at taking all that stuff in stride and I’m respectfully aware of the other athletes. Things like competing with the best of the best don’t affect me anymore.
Were you more nervous/excited right before the Trials races than you were before other major races you’ve been a part of, such as the NCAA Championships?
Kendra: It's hard to compare competing at a meet like Olympic Trials to swimming at NESCACs or NCAAs. At conference meets or at nationals I was always swimming with my team and for my team, and that was always really motivating for me and helped to keep me relaxed. It was very different at Olympic Trials because I was swimming only for myself. I missed having a group of supportive Amherst teammates there to keep me calm, loose, and lighthearted!
Ben: I was definitely less nervous and probably more excited than other races. In certain respects it was easier—there was no pressure. It was more fun because of that and because I really enjoy running in races that go fast. Other than that it felt like pretty much every other race in rainy conditions and with a large crowd. Step up to the line, gun goes off, run fast. Simple stuff.
Do you remember what you were thinking immediately after your final race?
Kendra: After my 100 I was relieved that it was over—since the pressure can be so intense—but I was also a little sad. After being a part of the competitive sport for so long, it was weird to think that I won't be swimming at that level anymore.
Ben: I don’t remember a whole lot about races. The 800 is short and really intense. There’s so much focus on each moment that I never come away with much memory, even from right after the race. If I had to guess it was probably along the lines of, “Well, I got smoked. Unfortunate.” I gave it a solid effort and it just wasn’t happening. Gotta have a sense of humor about that type of thing. I also think I might have been trying not to vomit—I was not in good shape.
What is your favorite memory of participating in the Trials?
Kendra: My favorite memory of swimming at Trials is the incredible outpouring of support I got from family and friends from around the country. I had my coaches and immediate family there of course, but I was getting emails, texts, phone calls, and Facebook posts all week from so many different people wishing me luck and congratulating me. I didn't realize I had so many people rooting for me, and I was so touched and so humbled at the same time.
Ben: After each race, everyone is shuttled into the "recovery tent." All the 800 guys were sitting around watching the following heat, taking off their spikes. It was a very friendly environment, considering each of us had been giving everything to beat everyone else. What was also neat was the difference in our situations. Some of us were in or just out of college, others were pro, and then KD Robinson is 36! It was unreal to see guys with so many different backgrounds come together, do almost anything to beat each other, and then get along perfectly well afterwards.
Was that the end of your swimming/track career, or is it still undetermined?
Kendra: I think I will probably swim for the rest of my life—for fun and fitness—but I don't think I will ever be in a position to compete at the elite level ever again, which makes my unique experience training for the Trials all the more special and rewarding.
Ben: Next year I'll be running for [New York-New Jersey Track Club]. I haven't decided if I'll continue to the next Trials. At this point I'm making decisions one year at a time. It will probably be contingent on my success next year.
What are your plans for the rest of the summer and for next year?
Kendra: When I was training I missed out on a lot of family time, and right now I am enjoying catching up on that. Soon enough I'll be joining the working world, so I am trying to take advantage of the down time!
Ben: I have what I think is an interesting situation. I'm working as a part-time business analyst at a light bulb manufacturer, in addition to running for NJNYTC. I kind of lucked out finding a company that would meet my scheduling needs for running. Hopefully both work out.