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Highly ranked UNO heptathlete Sami Spenner can’t clear NCAA bar

JAMES R. BURNETT/THE WORLD-HERALD

Sami Spenner is ranked No. 3 in the country in the heptathlon, but can’t compete in the national championships because of UNO’s Division I transition ban. Track and field with the Mavericks reignited Spenner’s athletic fire after a disappointment in volleyball at Wayne State.

TRACK AND FIELD

Highly ranked UNO heptathlete can’t clear NCAA bar

By Dirk Chatelain / The World-Herald

The forbidden All-American rises on her tiptoes, pulls her right foot back, then drives it forward, starting her approach to the high jump pit.

One step, two, three, four. She builds speed, curls her path toward the launch point, leaps off her left foot, thrusts her right knee, arches her back and ...

The bar falls.

100 HURDLES

Spenner's best: 14.23 seconds (Summit League Championship, May 9)

2013 NCAA champion Lindsay Vollmer: 13.58 seconds

What could have been: Spenner's personal best of 14.23 seconds would have placed 19th at the NCAA championships.

It’s the morning of the biggest college track meet of the year and Sami Spenner is in a slump.

She could be in Eugene, Ore., wearing her UNO uniform and competing in front of 10,000 fans at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships.

Instead, she’s at Omaha Burke Stadium, competing against herself. Her crowd consists of three burly football players working out on the turf and four senior citizens walking laps on the track, none of whom has a clue that the girl in the Columbus Scotus soccer T-shirt is ranked third nationally in the heptathlon, ahead of the Big 12’s, Pac-12’s and Big Ten’s best.

Spenner retreats to her mark and restarts her routine.

Her coach stands to the side, studying every step, pointing out minor flaws. UNO assistant Chris Richardson first spotted her four years ago in this stadium. He made a phone call after the state track meet and learned that Spenner was headed off to play college volleyball.

Since then, Richardson has watched the redshirt junior break school records, shatter her most ambitious goals, even beat ex-Olympians. There’s just one opponent she can’t conquer: the NCAA.

The bar is set at 5-foot-8. Spenner tries again and it crashes. Again. Again. Again. The last step isn’t right. Then the speed isn’t right. Then the hips aren’t right.

At UNO, Spenner is known for patience and dedication. She can take a bad practice day and get the most of it. She doesn’t accept failure.

But workouts are getting more tedious as she prepares for her big summer meet, the USA outdoor championships June 20 to 23. Spenner hasn’t competed since the Summit League championships, when “we ran her into the ground,” Richardson says. She competed in seven events, in addition to the heptathlon. She scored 59 points. She would’ve beaten four Summit teams by herself.

That was almost a month ago. There’s only so much progress you can make alone.

On her sixth attempt at 5-8, the bar shakes but doesn’t drop. Spenner stands on the pit and sticks out her tongue in relief. Let’s go one more inch, she says.

Five hours from now, she will be working her summer job, watching the heptathlon in Oregon, wondering what she could’ve done had her appeals to the NCAA been granted. But now she’s focused only on 5-9.

She misses the first try, then the second. The third time, her hips clear the bar and she kicks her feet over without even brushing it.

“Yeah!” Richardson says. “You kidding me?”

A personal record. Spenner smiles. She jumps down and stands under the bar like a kid trying to meet the height standard for a roller coaster. Look! My head doesn’t even touch.

HIGH JUMP

Spenner's best: 5 feet, 7¾ inches (Drake Relays, April 25, 2012)

2013 NCAA champion Lindsay Vollmer: 5 feet, 8¾ inches

What could have been: Spenner's personal best of 5 feet, 7¾ inches would have placed ninth at the NCAA championships.

The celebration lasts a few minutes. She changes her shoes, helps put the cover back on the pit and makes a crack about the empty stadium. Then it’s time to move to the next event.

“You wanna go throw the jav?”

* * *

If Sami Spenner’s Cinderella story were that of a Florida football player or a Texas basketball player, she’d be a walking NCAA billboard.

She didn’t come to UNO on an athletic scholarship. In fact, she participated in high school track for only one year. After transferring to Omaha, she sent Coach an email mid-semester asking for a chance.

She can’t practice on campus because her school demolished her track and turned it into a soccer stadium — try throwing the javelin in Sapp Fieldhouse.

She holds a 3.79 GPA in exercise science — she’ll graduate next May and head off to physical therapy school.

“I’ve been around athletics for a long time,” said UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts. “I don’t know that I’ve seen any young ladies like her.”

But two years ago, when Alberts and UNO jumped to Division I, they agreed to an NCAA rule: The Mavs are not eligible to compete in NCAA championships during their four-year reclassification period. That’s not just UNO teams, but individuals, too. By the time the ban ends in 2015-16, Spenner will be gone.

She isn’t the only UNO athlete affected by the ban — the baseball team couldn’t play in the regionals after winning a Summit championship. What makes Spenner different is that she’s good enough — on a good day — to win a national title. In Division I.

Imagine what that accomplishment would mean at 60th and Dodge Streets.

“I walked on to a D-II program,” Spenner said. “You think I meant to do this? I was just happy to go to D-II nationals at the time.”

“Let’s be honest,” coach Richardson said, “track and field isn’t a money generator. It’s supposed to be about the student-athlete. In this case, it’s not. It’s more about the rules that have been set forth to essentially punish athletes.”

SHOT PUT

Spenner's best: 37 feet, 11½ inches (Mt. SAC Relays, April 17)

2013 NCAA champion Lindsay Vollmer: 39 feet, 3¼ inches

What could have been: Spenner's personal best of 37 feet, 11½ inches would have placed 14th at the NCAA championships.

Alberts understands the basis of the rule. NCAA leaders wanted to slow the flood of schools moving to Division I. And they wanted to ensure that new members met a range of rigorous standards, including academic and Title IX compliance. That doesn’t make it easier to stomach.

In March 2011, when Spenner was a Division II no-name, Alberts couldn’t have fathomed the ban impeding UNO’s first potential Division I All-American, he said.

“Maybe we should have.”

* * *

Here’s how it works: seven events spread across two days.

The heptathlon starts with the 100-meter hurdles, then moves to the high jump, then the shot put, then the 200 meters (a Spenner speciality). There’s just 30 minutes between events.

The next day starts with the long jump (she’s elite there, too), then the javelin and, finally, the 800.

When Spenner came to UNO in 2010, she had never put the shot nor thrown a javelin. She had never run an 800. She tried the high jump once senior year. The hurdles? A few times in eighth grade.

Spenner’s parents met at the Nebraska Public Power District in Columbus. Both were small-college athletes. Her dad coached her and pushed her hard. Some girls would’ve rebelled. Sami bought in.

She was only 5-6, but had no problems diving for loose balls on the gym floor or bodying up bigger girls on the soccer field.

200-METER RUN

Spenner's best: 24.12 seconds (Summit League Championship, May 11)

2013 NCAA champion Lindsay Vollmer: 24.27 seconds

What could have been: Spenner's personal best of 24.12 seconds would have placed fourth at the NCAA championships.

“She was not afraid to mix it up,” Al Spenner said. “We knew she had fight in her.”

Her senior year at Scotus, Spenner was the starting setter on the Shamrocks’ state championship volleyball team. Wayne State offered a scholarship. Dream come true.

Her last semester of high school, after three years of varsity soccer, she took a chance. Traded cleats for spikes. The track coaches were taken aback by how quickly she adapted to the 200, the long jump and the triple jump. She finished in the top three in those events, plus a relay, helping lead Scotus to a state championship.

That could’ve been the end of track and field. But Spenner’s college volleyball career never took off. She had been a setter for only two years in high school and hadn’t mastered technique. Wayne State coaches saw her as a backup, she said. She lost her fire. Worse, she wasn’t crazy about attending college in a town smaller than Columbus.

She looked at UNL, but UNO had the better exercise science program. And she wasn’t quite ready to close the door on sports. She transferred and considered a second shot at volleyball. What about track, Dad said. A month into second semester, she sent UNO track head coach Steve Smith an email.

She joined the team for the outdoor season and started jumping, setting personal records in her first meet. Richardson sent her home for 2010 summer vacation with this thought: Maybe you should try the multi-events.

Spenner’s dad chuckled. “I’ll pay money to watch you throw the shot put.”

* * *

Richardson prefers that his multi-event athletes have training in at least two events — the high jump and the hurdles.

LONG JUMP

Spenner's best: 20 feet, 9 inches (Summit League Championship, May 10 -- UNO record)

2013 NCAA champion Lindsay Vollmer: 20 feet, 2½ inches

What could have been: Spenner's personal best of 20 feet, 9 inches would have won first place at the NCAA championships.

Spenner was 0 for 2. What she had instead was extraordinary drive. Track and field, like hitting a baseball, is full of frustrating repetitions. Wasted days. But Spenner hated the idea of going through the motions. Sometimes she made practice unbearable because she refused to leave without hitting her mark.

With Caniglia Field under construction, Sapp Fieldhouse is packed like a Mickey D’s drive-thru at 2 a.m. On a given day, basketball and volleyball may practice on the hardwood, softball may take batting practice on one end, baseball on the other. For the Speedo crowd, there’s “a diving contraption in the corner,” Alberts said.

And then there’s a track, if you can call it that — spikes don’t do much good on a rubber floor. It’s not the ideal training environment. But this is how Alberts first noticed Sami Spenner.

“She was always there. She just outworks everybody.”

In May 2011, her first full season, Spenner qualified for Division II nationals and finished fifth. She was overjoyed. That’s when Richardson knew “we got something here.”

That’s also when UNO entered the Division I transition. Coaches told their athletes, if you want to transfer, we’ll help you. Spenner didn’t consider it. She wanted to be a physical therapist. And she had no clue what lay ahead in the heptathlon.

Last year, she redshirted the outdoor season, but busted more personal goals — nearly qualifying for the Olympic Trials. This winter, she took another step. In her first pentathlon (the indoor alternative to the heptathlon), she broke a school record and jumped into the nation’s top five. Suddenly the reclassification ban threatened more than just a postcard weekend at the NCAA championships — it potentially obstructed her from a national title.

UNO moved quickly to seek a waiver. Spenner’s predicament, they argued, was beyond her control. She was a student first and didn’t want to transfer again. Moreover, her benefit outweighed the harm inflicted on the last-place participant she would knock out. On Feb. 15, Spenner submitted a personal statement, which concluded with this:

JAVELIN

Spenner's best: 122 feet (Nebraska Invitational, May 5)

2013 NCAA champion Lindsay Vollmer: 151 feet, 6 inches

What could have been: Spenner's personal best of 122 feet would have placed 15th at the NCAA championships.

I started as a Division II walk-on and I deserve to finish as a Division I All-American because of all the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into making me the elite athlete that I am.

On decision day, Spenner walked into Sapp with an inkling of hope.

Compliance Director Matt Jakobsze broke the news: The NCAA said no, citing a lack of extenuating circumstances. The Mavs appealed to an NCAA subcommittee. Again, denied.

“We knew that this (reclassification) process would involve sacrifices,” Jakobsze said. “But ... a four-year period without access to championships is pretty harsh.”

NCAA spokesman Christopher Radford told The World-Herald there isn’t much to say beyond the letter of the law. Upon the second appeal, “the subcommittee noted continued support ... for reclassifying institutions to complete the reclassification process prior to competing in D-I championships.”

Spenner missed the NCAA indoor meet, competing instead in USA indoors against mostly non-collegians, including Olympians. She finished fourth in the pentathlon.

In the long jump, she beat the field by almost a foot. Her leap of 20-5½ feet prompted an “Oooooh” from the crowd, Richardson said.

“It made a little tingle in my spine.”

* * *

The physical grind burdens all track and field athletes. But multi-eventers are a different breed.

The mental piece is even more important. One bad event — like a bad inning in baseball or a bad hole in golf — must be forgotten. Immediately.

“If you pull that negativity into the next event,” said Richardson, a former Big 12 champion decathlete at Nebraska, “it’s gonna be a domino effect.”

Spenner, who thinks too much for her own good, went to a Missouri meet last spring, struggled through the first event and it ruined the next six. It was a miserable two days.

She made an effort this spring to forget setbacks. To move on. In April, she went to California, struggled through the hurdles and the high jump, then turned it around.

800-METER RUN

Spenner's best: 2 minutes, 14.90 seconds (Mt. SAC Relays, April 18)

2013 NCAA champion Lindsay Vollmer: 2 minutes, 19.36 seconds

What could have been: Spenner's personal best of 2 minutes, 14.90 seconds would have placed sixth at the NCAA championships.

She finished with 5,806 points, a mark that remained third in Division I entering outdoor nationals. Pretty good considering it was the only heptathlon of her season where she maxed out.

People ask all the time if she’s upset by the NCAA ban. It stinks, she says. But aside from taking the NCAA to court, what else could she do? She doesn’t want one missed opportunity to affect her next one.

“ ‘What if’,” Richardson says, “can be very dangerous words.”

So they don’t talk much about the NCAAs. They focus on USAs. Most of the time, anyway.

Friday afternoon, as the nation’s best college heptathletes reached crunch time in Eugene, Spenner was at Athletes’ Training Center, where she holds a summer job. She watched the computer. She paced back and forth. She wondered what she could’ve done in front of the big crowd.

She returned to her dorm room just as the 800 meters was ending. She hit “refresh” on the results page. Again. Again. Again.

Finally, it was over. The NCAA champion for 2013? An upset winner, Lindsay Vollmer. The Kansas sophomore had entered the NCAA meet ninth in the standings, behind, among others, a washed-out Division II volleyball player from small-town Nebraska.

Spenner left the computer and made dinner for one — baked chicken and steamed vegetables. She sat down on the couch and picked out a Disney movie on DVD — “Wreck-It Ralph.”

It made her laugh.

Contact the writer:

402-649-1461, dirk.chatelain@owh.com, twitter.com/dirkchatelain


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