She’s the only two-time Female Athlete of the Year in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. She boasts several Division II records. She’s engaged, graduating in two weeks, and now, officially sponsored by Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, who said she “has the ability to race with the best female athletes in the U.S.” (“Neely’s Notes”, her online blog). In June, the Shippensburg Red Raider and native will go for the Olympic gold in London…if she can overcome a significant foot injury.
It’s a Foot Race
On the twenty yard-line of a lively Seth Grove Stadium, a lone lacrosse player taking practice shots at a vacant net pauses mid-swing to stop and stare at the technological terror quickly advancing in his direction. From a distance, all he can see is the neon green vapor trails of a rider and her half-bike, half-elliptical looking thing traversing the macadam parking lot. On the rubbery track adjacent to the crosse-bearing midfielder, runners cease their stretching routines to join in the observation. Inquisitive murmuring heightens as the mystery rider and her unidentified cross-training object close in. “What the hell is that?” the lacrosse player blurts in pure bewilderment. Three hundred yards and fifteen seconds later, Neely Spence and her newest fitness device, the ElliptiGO, arrive at Student Association Field.
The ElliptiGO is the closest to running you can get without actually running. It doesn’t sound like a fitness tool a champion marathoner representing the United States in the 2012 Olympic trials would own nor want. Gold medals, after all, are only awarded to competitors who finish the race on two legs. When your foot is afoot, though, and you’re a premier athlete, you find a way to overcome adversity.
Running is a Career!
Recalling a time when Neely was asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, the well-spoken Human Communications major regressed out of her normally controlled vocal cadence. Her pupils constricted and almost disappeared beneath her widening cerulean corneas. The excitement of the memory floored her speech into rapid, high-pitched verses:
“You know even when I was little people would be like, ‘Oh what do you want to be when you grow up’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh! A professional runner’ and they’re like ‘That’s not a career!’ and I’m like ‘Yes it is it, it’s what my dad was!’ “
She took a breath, mentally resurfacing in the present. Her dictation slowed and the timbre of her voice descended.
It’s uncertain if Steve Spence witnessed the original conversation Neely recited from memory, but he knew of Neely’s burning aspiration to run professionally. The father of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference’s only two-time athlete of the year wanted Neely to play golf. “You can play into your 50’s and still be pretty good and make a living at it,” he chuckled as rain crashed against the roof of his dimly lit office in the Davis House. A runner turned coach, Spence knows the career span for professional marathoners is short. In 1998, just six years after competing in the Barcelona Olympics himself, Spence returned to his Alma mater to coach Red Raider cross-country. His words of wisdom were not enough to dissuade Neely, however. She was running competitively by Eighth grade, winning national competitions by high school, and setting PSAC records at Ship.
Her father described Neely as a “big fish in a medium sized pond.” By medium sized pond, he’s referring to the level of competition Neely faces. Division II athletes are held in high regard but do not receive the same praise their Division I counterparts do. There have been and there will be people who question Neely’s decision to not compete against a higher tier of competition. For Neely, the choice wasn’t purely academic or purely athletic. It came down to a trait that’s not necessarily empirical, what she calls “comfortability.” In terms of comfortability, Neely felt “nothing really compared and that’s why I ended up choosing Ship.”
The foot pain peaked in Scotland. Mud and snow put more stress on an already agitated joint. Pain is a projected side effect of long distance running, but Neely was experiencing it for two months now. She finished the race; because a long distance runner’s mental fortitude is only surpassed by their lung capacity. Upon returning to her quiet home of Shippensburg, however, x-rays revealed Neely Spence had suffered a stress fracture. “I had never really been injured before,” she sighed, revealing a weakness not seen in the billboards she’s featured in on Interstate 81.
Her friends told her it would make her appreciate the sport more, but Neely had been running religiously since she was in Eighth Grade. “I never didn’t appreciate running,” she responded, forgetting for a second all the grammar lessons she learned in Communication classes. Her eyes had widened again as she referenced another dialogue from memory. “I’ve always loved running and my run has always been the highlight of my day.”
She blew out air for the first time in over five minutes; only able to communicate the last two sentences because her lung capacity exceeds that of a vast majority of mankind.
“That’s encouraging, going back to it, knowing that is this truly what I love to do.”
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