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Bottorff A Champion For All Seasons
Tuesday 06/11/2014  -  John Roth, GoDuke The Magazine
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Courtesy: Doug Wells
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DURHAM -- It was 30 minutes before the start of the national championship and Juliet Bottorff was doing what she always does: warming up with a quick tempo run to elevate her heart rate. In 30 minutes, the gun would fire and she would begin her 25 laps around the indoor track at the Albuquerque Convention Center in pursuit of the NCAA 5,000-meter crown. The laps would click by in 35- to 45-second increments, and Bottorff would be prepared for the pace after clipping through several city blocks during her pre-race routine.

The 5,000 was scheduled for an 8:45 p.m. start, so it was already dark outside. And rainy. Thanks to a building situated tight to the sidewalk, Bottorff’s visibility was reduced even further as she stepped into an intersection to cross the street. It looked like a small street so she didn’t expect a car to be coming. And really, who would be thinking about traffic with a national championship showdown minutes away?
 
But a car WAS coming, and before either party could swerve to avoid the other, there was a collision between pedestrian and vehicle. Implausibly, Juliet Bottorff had been hit by a car while warming up for the NCAA title race.

“Technically, I hit the car,” she admitted later. “I probably hit it right at the wheel. I basically kneed it as hard as I could.”

Bottorff then headed back inside to the track, found her coach, Kevin Jermyn, and told him what happened.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Uh, sure,” she responded, before turning her attention back to the task at hand.

“It hurt,” she said recently, recalling the accident. “But luckily I think it was just a bone bruise. So it was one of those things where you let adrenaline take over and you don’t think about it. I just went in and raced — because what else are you gonna do, you know?”

Running on a knee that would swell up and remain inflamed for the next month, Bottorff went in and raced to a fifth-place finish, earning All-America honors for the seventh time in her career. Because what else are you gonna do, you know?

• • • • •

The Albuquerque meet in March marked Bottorff’s final NCAA indoor track championship appearance. This week she’s in Eugene, Ore., for her final NCAA outdoor meet, closing the book on one of the most illustrious running careers in Duke history. The first Blue Devil woman to win an outdoor NCAA track title, Bottorff will take aim at her second 10,000-meter championship on Thursday night having posted the third best time in the nation this spring. She has also qualified for Saturday’s 5,000-meter race.

A champion for all seasons, Bottorff has captured four ACC crowns, set conference and school records and twice was named the ACC scholar-athlete of the year in her sport. She earned a unique distinction during this 2013-14 school year, her fifth at Duke. In the fall she won the ACC individual cross country title; during the winter she claimed the ACC indoor 5,000-meter crown; then this spring she took the ACC outdoor 10,000-meter championship. No Blue Devil woman had ever accomplished such a triple crown of ACC titles in all three running seasons of the same academic year.

The feat is so uncommon that it may overshadow another equally remarkable achievement. Across her 12 college seasons (four each of cross country, indoor track and outdoor track), Bottorff was talented and durable enough to compete in the ACC championship meet all 12 seasons — and in the NCAA championship meet in 11 of the 12. Nobody does that, especially at Bottorff’s performance level.

“To be completely honest, I might be more proud of that than my NCAA title,” she said. “I am very proud of that. And that’s more defining of me than anything else. I try to be mentally strong through different things, the ups and downs. I think one of the most important things, especially in our sport, is being able to push through not ideal times and when things aren’t really going your way, because things aren’t always going to go your way.

“A lot of times people will have great seasons when things are going well, but when things are not going well they may give up on themselves for a little bit. And that’s why those people don’t necessarily make it through 12 seasons. It’s a lot of seasons, especially when you don’t really have an offseason, ever. So I’ve always been of the mentality that no matter what the circumstances are, make the best of them. Going to 11 out of 12 NCAAs, that means a lot to me.”

Bottorff’s NCAA ledger includes four appearances in cross country and four in outdoor track. The only NCAA meet she missed out on was the indoor championship her freshman year. But she made up for that the last two years by placing seventh and fifth nationally in the indoor 5K while setting the ACC record in the event (15:49.45).

Her most important NCAA trip, undoubtedly, was the 2011 outdoor meet to conclude her sophomore year. She had placed second in the ACC in the 5K, but Jermyn switched her over to the 10K before nationals and she stunned the field by taking the title in just her third race ever at that distance.

Traditionally, for many athletes, an NCAA title is the result of progressive steps toward greatness. For Bottorff it was something else entirely. She was a national champ before she won any conference crowns, before she set any records, before she really knew what she was doing. Rather than a culmination, the 2011 championship was the trigger point for all that ensued in her noted career. “It definitely changed my thinking,” she said.

Given that unconventional launching pad, it’s tempting to describe Bottorff’s career poetically as a road less traveled. But that would be a stretch for someone who has been spotted on every road, side street, trail and tributary around the Duke campus logging thousands of training miles over the past five years. Think of it more as an inverted pyramid, with her development into an elite competitor growing upward and outward from that seminal moment of 2011.

Before her growth curve took shape, however, Bottorff’s sophomore peak was followed by a junior valley. She sustained a hip injury during preseason training that forced her to redshirt the cross country and indoor track seasons — a huge downer after she had just experienced the eye-opening accomplishment that unveiled her potential. “At the time I was just depressed and thought life isn’t fair,” she admitted, before acknowledging how much the recovery process taught her about dealing with adversity and taking the necessary steps to strengthen her body for future success.

By outdoor track season of her junior year, she had progressed enough to qualify for nationals again but not quite enough to defend her 10K title, placing 14th at the NCAA meet. Her first senior year of 2012-13, though, revealed how far she had come as she earned cross country All-America honors, was named the league’s scholar-athlete of the year for the first time and won her first ACC championship, in the indoor 5K. She then strategically redshirted the spring outdoor season so she would have a full year of eligibility available across all three campaigns this year.

Bottorff may have bucked the norm by picking up her biggest win so early, but in another significant way her career conformed to a traditional narrative: steady growth, maturity and experience had her poised for a spectacular final year, and that’s exactly what she delivered in 2013-14.

Winning the ACC cross country title was a major objective entering her fifth year. During the indoor season she repeated her ACC 5,000-meter championship and also took third in the 3,000 meters to earn league performer of the year honors. The outdoor season saw her finally win an ACC 10K title — three years after she’d won the NCAAs — and place second in the 5K.

Before attempting that grueling double again at the NCAA first round meet to qualify for nationals, she ran a 10K at Stanford that enabled her to reach another primary goal — the school record in her signature event. Duke Hall of Famer Ellen Reynolds’ 10,000-meter mark of 32:40.70 had stood since 1986, until Bottorff obliterated it with a 32:25.69 time in Palo Alto.

“I’ve been staring at that record for a long time,” she said. “I’ve always thought of myself as a 10K specialist, but I don’t run a lot of super-fast races. I’ve been more into winning the race. For non-track people that sounds like the same thing, fast and winning, but they’re really not. I have definitely been a better racer than I have been at running fast. I just haven’t been in that many fast races in the 10K, so I was really looking forward to that opportunity (at Stanford). I had my eyes on it, so I’m glad I was able to get it.”

• • • • •

As her roommate for the past five years, teammate Maddie Morgan has enjoyed a unique perspective on Bottorff’s development into an ultra-fit, steely-nerved competitor. She has admired Bottorff’s consistent dedication to coach Kevin Jermyn’s vision, as well as her ability to strike an effective balance between track, academics and life.

“I was observing our team at ACCs this year,” said Morgan. “There were people on the line who clearly looked nervous, and she looked as calm as ever. I think she is able to not let other factors get in the way. She’s good at keeping it simple and not letting outside stress influence it.”

Likewise, Bottorff has been just as focused in class. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience in 2013 and added a master’s degree in Management Studies this year. Her next academic goal is a PhD to set herself up for a research career in rehabilitation science. The prestigious postgraduate scholarships she has been awarded from the ACC and NCAA will help in that regard, but she still has a few miles to run before transitioning to the lab. This summer she plans to compete in the USA Track & Field nationals at Sacramento June 26-29 and turn professional, with an eye on the 2016 Olympics.

“I’m in the shape of my life, and once I stop it’s over,” she said. “So I’m going to ride out this wave and make sure I don’t stop prematurely — make sure I don’t stop with any regrets.”

As part of a team-building exercise this year, she took a personality test that accurately identified one of the truisms about her character: the thought of leaving potential unfulfilled is simply unacceptable to her.

“I feel like if I could be better at something, then why not? That’s something that really just drives my life. I like to see what more I can do. I don’t see the point in doing something not 100 percent. Yeah, my personality is, I’m very self-motivated, maybe almost too much. But I’m a D-I athlete, what can I say?

“I am constantly surprised with how much support my teammates and my coaches and my family have always given me. The thought of letting them down doesn’t cross your mind,” she added. “And Kevin has been unbelievable, just always believing in me and helping me reach that next level — helping me think bigger and better and higher, exploring new possibilities, maybe things I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. That’s a big part of our sport, believing you can do more than you would have thought.”

As a pro, Bottorff likely will have to decide if she wants to stick with the 10K, which she “absolutely loves,” or move to the marathon, which she has never tried. The only certainty is that she will make an informed decision when the time comes — after she has hired an agent, aligned with a coach, joined a training cohort and analyzed the implications.

“It’s uncharted territory so it’s something I have to have an open mind about,” she says. Because if you are Juliet Bottorff, champion for all seasons, wired for racing and sharply-tuned enough to track down All-America honors 30 minutes after being hit by a car, what else are you gonna do, you know?


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