Katherine Turner explains how an American sports scholarship proved an ideal move for her
In August 2015 I moved to Indianapolis in the US, to start a new chapter of my life as a student-athlete at Butler University.
After three years at the University of Cambridge, I had wanted a new challenge and things couldn’t get much more different than this.
I’d spent my time at Cambridge running about 20 miles a week and getting some semi-decent results despite never achieving anything particularly noteworthy. Like most athletes at university, finishing my studies presented me with a difficult choice; look for a ‘real job’ and start earning my way in the world, most likely resulting in a gradual decline in my running; or pursue further study enabling me to continue living the student life and hopefully dedicate myself a bit more fully to athletics than I’d managed during my undergraduate degree.
Don’t get me wrong, I considered myself highly dedicated and motivated to succeed, but running 20 miles a week seemed my limit. I’d been nagged by constant injuries, had never settled into a consistent coaching relationship and generally wore myself into the ground doing ridiculous sessions, only for my body to break down. This resulted in me being something of an enigma at Cambridge, as I turned around after 20 minutes yet again on the Sunday long run.
Despite never achieving outstanding success, a few decent outings over the mud and a quick 1500m race, meant that I had been contacted by a number of American university coaches about attending college in the USA on a sports scholarship. Unsure what I wanted to do with my life I realised that this might be just the chance I had been waiting for; the opportunity to finally see where my running could take me.
Considering the move
This is where my tale takes on relevance for a number of athletes in the UK. Going to America to run is becoming increasingly common with the high level of competition, generous scholarships and amazing facilities proving too good to ignore. However, negotiating one’s way through the complex NCAA eligibility rules, numerous recruiting phone calls, that at times felt like harassment and sheer number of different universities was hugely stressful.
As studying in America becomes more and more popular I feel it would be beneficial if UK Athletics were able to create some guidelines and tips for athletes attempting to navigate this complex process. The coaches are all sales people wanting you to buy into the picture they are painting you and a shrewd eye and detailed research are needed to avoid being blown away by their claims. After a few tears and a fair amount of stress, I settled on Butler University, signed the papers and prepared as best I could for my new life.
I can honestly say that attending university in America has been one of the best decisions of my life, both from a running and a personal standpoint. Granted there have been some hard lessons to learn and I’ve had to incorporate ‘workout’, ‘singlet’ and ‘buns’ into my vocabulary but the difficulties have been more than counter-balanced by the opportunities.
Typically we train early in the morning to avoid the heat in the summer and to prevent conflict with classes. This in itself was a challenge at first but having a group of teammates waiting for you makes venturing out at first light much more manageable. Runs and sessions are often followed by a trip to the training room where I can see the trainer, foam roll, ice bath and do my ‘pre-hab’ exercises.
Access to top medical facilities are just another of the benefits of the American system. I suddenly found myself surrounded by not just a group of team-mates, all as equally motivated and dedicated as me, who I could run with every day, but a team of experts to support me towards reaching my goals; a trainer, sports psychologist, doctor, masseur, and nutritionist have all contributed to my development as an athlete over the last few months.
Previously I always felt slightly embarrassed to admit to the amount of time, effort and money I was prepared to put into running but since I’ve come to Butler I’ve been encouraged to consider every aspect of my training and share my goals and ambitions with those around me. Being part of a team and feeling supported by so many different people has been a huge change and a massive positive.
Standing on the start line of cross country races knowing I was running for my team as well as myself has been an amazing experience and something that I feel is rarely possible in the UK. I see my team-mates nearly every day and we often eat together, watch films together, and shop together. They are friends as well as team- mates so when I raced I felt less alone on that start line than ever before.
Probably the biggest change, for me personally, has been having a consistent coaching relationship. I can’t give enough praise to the coaches I have had in the UK but now I have a coach who is paid to do just that. He’s been prepared to spend hours in his office discussing my training, racing and anything else that I might want to talk about and it’s been really reassuring having someone giving me such consistent training and advice. Already I’ve learnt so much and if I had to come home tomorrow I’d have the tools to coach myself far better than I did before.
A regular routine of two ‘workouts’ a week, recovery runs and a Sunday long run have gradually become engrained. From believing my body somehow wasn’t equipped to run any longer than forty minutes, I’ve managed to increase my mileage and regularly run an at least semi-respectable long run.
The coaching philosophy
I believe buying into the coaching philosophy is the most important thing for anyone considering university in America. Having the ability to leave preconceived notions of what works and what doesn’t behind and embrace new ideas and new ways of doing things is really important if you want to get the most out of your time in the NCAA.
But what perhaps has been the most important lesson America has taught me has been to believe in myself a little more. While in Britain scepticism and self-deprecation are all pervasive, my coach and teammates in America have been quick to encourage my ambitions and genuinely congratulate me on what I would consider only small successes. I realise that not everyone has a good experience in America, and I am hugely grateful for the fact I ended up somewhere so perfectly suited to my needs, however I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to consider America seriously.
I believe that the opportunities offered in the NCAA are too good to be passed up and UKA should actively encourage and guide people into the American system. I hope my running education can continue over the next year and a half and although it’s challenging moving to another country it’s good to know I can still get Athletics Weekly on my laptop!
» Katherine Turner is a recent Cambridge University geography graduate now studying for a Masters in English literature at Butler University, Indianapolis. She has run 4:51 for the mile and 9:27 for 3000m during the US indoor season