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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Burnell places third at Nationals

Sarah Burnell ’14 prepares for the outdoor season after her performance at Indoor Nationals. Photo by Shadman Asif.

Sarah Burnell ’14 and Christine Ajinjeru ’14 represented Grinnell at the NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field National Championships on Friday and Saturday, March 14 and 15, which was hosted in Lincoln, Neb.

Burnell, originally seeded 10th in the mile event, finished in third place overall with a time of 4:55.55 and received All-American honors for her performance. She is the first Pioneer to accomplish this feat since Nicole Cueno  in 2001. Ajinjeru competed in the 400-meter dash and was the 13th fastest overall, the fourth fastest in her heat, with a time of 57.49.

The success of the Grinnell women’s team comes after a long absence from the National Championships.

“It was really cool because we haven’t had a female NCAA Championships runner since 2002, and this year we had two,” Burnell said. “Our program is strong, and there’s a good chance in the future that lots of women and men might be qualifying for indoor nationals from Grinnell.”

Coming into her senior year, Burnell simply hoped to match the times she posted during her second year, having missed the spring 2013 season while studying abroad. However, she far exceeded original expectations and her performance in Lincoln came as a pleasant, yet well-deserved, surprise.

“Sarah came into the season with a mile time of 5.07, dropped her time to 5.05.5 by the Last Chance meet [in the week before Nationals], dropped over six seconds to qualify for Nationals, and then dropped another 3 seconds running a 4.57 in the preliminary round [of the National Championships],” said assistant coach Ben Raphelson ’08. “Coming into Nationals, she hadn’t lost in a mile or 800-event this year.”

At Nationals, the top three finishers in each preliminary heat automatically qualify for the finals and the next four fastest times determine who will round out the 10-runner final. Given Burnell’s 10th seeding overall, Raphelson coached her to simply focus on qualifying for the finals and to leave it all on the track.

“My goal was for her to get finals and an All-American nod, so her strategy was to keep herself close and mix it up, trusting her kick over the last 400,” Raphelson said. “We treated the prelims like a final, and she didn’t hold back. She finished in second, breathing down the neck of the two-time national champion.”

Sarah Burnell ’14 prepares for the outdoor season after her performance at Indoor Nationals. Photo by Shadman Asif.
Sarah Burnell ’14 prepares for the outdoor season after her performance at Indoor Nationals. Photo by Shadman Asif.

Burnell posted the fourth-fastest qualifying time overall, running 4.57.25 and breaking the five-minute barrier for the first time.

In the following day’s finals, Burnell capitalized on her experiences racing on back-to-back days and employed the same late-kick strategy as she had in the preliminaries, with similar success.

“Sarah was holding in sixth place until the last 400 meters, and she passed three people in the last 150 meters to finish in third,” Raphelson said. “It’s important to note that the top two finishers were two of the fastest in Division III history.”

Two weeks after the race, Burnell is still acclimating to the magnitude of her recent success and achievements on the track.

“It feels a bit more like a dream that happened a long time ago,” Burnell said. “I exceeded my own expectations and what I thought I was capable of.”

Speaking of exceeding expectations, Ajinjeru has only been competing in track and field since coming to Grinnell, which makes her qualification for the National Championships all the more remarkable.

“[Christine] ran her second-fastest 400m ever while navigating her first experience at Nationals,” wrote sprint coach Jen Jacobsen ’95 in an email to the S&B. “I have been lucky to get to see her performances improve so greatly over the last 3.5 years—and her confidence in herself grow. By the end of the weekend she realized that she belongs in that group of competitors and raised her expectations of herself.”

Even though Ajinjeru may lack experience in the indoor track and field circuit, she more than makes up for it during the outdoor track and field season.

“Outdoors suits Christine better, as the race is run entirely in lanes, so there is not the same physicality and potential to get boxed in as there is in indoors,” Jacobsen wrote. “At the Emory Invitational on spring break, she ran 57.50, just .13 off of her school record from 2012, and is currently ranked number three in NCAA Division III.”

Burnell and Ajinjeru supported each other well during Nationals, reducing the anxiety that frays nerves and often hurts performance.

“Christine is so good at being relaxed and the comic relief. I definitely needed it because races can be so nerve racking,” Burnell said.

With the outdoor track and field season coming up soon, Grinnell can look forward to these two standouts and their teammates proudly representing the team and the winning streak.

“Overall, the team has improved a lot and are looking to translate their efforts into personal bests for the outdoor season,” Raphelson said. “That’s what the team is targeting, and we’re hoping a few more people will have the chance to join Sarah and Christine at the outdoor meet.”

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