In the summer of her sophomore year of high school, Esther Erb Atkins had her collegiate plans all set. She was going to attend Case Western Reserve University for its well-renowned program in Early Music Performance Practice and headed off to her year abroad in Germany.
She never envisioned that running on the treadmill at college one of her first days on campus would be the first step in her becoming an NCAA champion and eventually a world-class runner. "I had no intention of running in college," Erb Atkins recalled.
THE BEGINNING AT CWRU
She received both an academic and music scholarship, but in spite of qualifying for states in the 1,000 meters and winning the Region with her 4x800 team her senior year in high school, it was her only year of track and she planned to focus on her music and academics in college.
"Coach (CWRU cross country head coach Kathy) Lanese saw me jogging to the Veale Center during orientation and found me on the treadmill," Erb Atkins remembered. "She came to the cardio room and said 'you look like a runner.' Before the day was out, Erb Atkins had taken a physical and attended cross country practice. "Then it totally became a passion."
She ran a 21:49 in five kilometers at the beginning of that first year, but was running 18:42 over the same distance at the end of the spring. "I was a sophomore when Esther first arrived," said Spartan teammate Karyn Wheeler Marciniak. "I never let her forget that I beat her every race that first year together and that shows just how quickly she improved" she adds with a laugh." After she qualified for NCAA's as an individual as a sophomore, she didn't want to do it alone. She started pushing everybody really hard and it was obvious it was coming from a place of caring."
By her junior year, Erb Atkins helped lead the Spartans to their first UAA title and first appearance in the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships in 2006, where they finished 10th in the nation. "I am only now realizing what an incredible experience that was," Erb Atkins remarked. "We had a team that finished 11th in the region my freshman year and two years later, we won the regional title and finished 10th in the country."
"Esther made us realize what could happen if we all worked as hard as she did," Wheeler Marciniak said. "We all understood that season how being such a close team was essential to our success. We were incredibly close and goofy. Coach definitely brought out the fun in it and I have never forgotten what it felt like to be so dedicated to one another."
"Esther not only set the groundwork for our distance program but she also gave our team exposure at the national level," Lanese said. "She was the first CWRU woman to qualify to the NCAA Cross Country finals and in the NCAA Track and Field Championships in the Mile. Esther continually elevated her level of excellence well beyond any runner before or since her time. She created a lot of firsts in CWRU women's cross country and track, which led not only to individual, but also team success. Her firsts led to other team members wanting to accomplish some big goals. She elicited results from her teammates by example and assisted in building the platform for our team and her talented successors."
"We would not have achieved nearly what we did without Esther," Wheeler Marciniak said. "The defining trait Esther possesses is that she sees the good in people even before they see it themselves. She sees the incredible potential in people."
THE NCAA TITLE
In her senior year, Erb Atkins captured the individual title at the UAA championship and then capped her collegiate career with a national championship in the 10,000 meters in the 2008 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
"It was very surreal," Erb Atkins said about winning the NCAA title. She had struggled with performance anxiety throughout her career with super high expectations and what she considered tough results in six of her previous nine NCAA races. "I was not visualizing the race, just what I imagined my opponents might do," she stated. "I changed my thinking by seeing my opponents as teammates instead of my competitors. I was working with my competition, not against them, and would particularly use strong UAA runners as my 'teammates.'"
Wheeler Marciniak said it would have been easy for Erb Atkins to know the names of UAA runners. "Esther talked to everyone," she remembered. She knew every single athlete on every UAA team and would make a point of talking to them before and after the race. Still to this day, even if we are running together in Central Park, she can't go a mile without saying hello to someone."
The week of the championship, Erb Atkins also saw a sports psychologist. "I learned how quickly our thoughts affect us physically," she recalled. "I think we all know that our thoughts have an impact on us physically, but he was able to show me that it was literally the next heartbeat."
Erb Atkins entered that 10,000-meter race in a much more positive mindset than previous races and remembers the race clearly. "It turned out to be a race made for me and I knew it would come down to a final kick," she recalled. It would not be easy as she knew that to win the race, she would have to outkick 10-time All-American Jennifer Adams of Keene State College, who Erb Atkins remembered "was much faster than me."
Over the final four laps, three runners, including Erb Atkins and Adams, separated from the field. Erb Atkins remained five yards behind Adams for most of the final lap and with 200 meters to go was thinking "second place is amazing!" The key spot in the race came with 100 meters remaining and the two leaders were about to lap another runner. "At that moment, it was my instinct to get around both runners," Erb Atkins said. "In the last 50 meters, I assumed sprinting form to win."
Erb Atkins ran a final mile of 5:20 with an incredible time of 68 seconds for the last lap. "I started calling that my 'God Gear' because it isn't something I can call on myself," she stated. "It comes from above."
"Esther was truly the most impressive athlete I have ever coached," Lanese added. "She was not simply satisfied running practice and then going home. Instead she spent additional hours performing the 'extras' in strength and conditioning, practicing self-care, practicing good nutrition, using mental tools, and taking time to study her opponents. She was the dream athlete always looking for the next way to enhance her performance. At CWRU, she was a great student of the running game.
MORE THAN JUST ATHLETICS
Her success was not limited to her athletics as she continuously excelled academically as well while never taking fewer than 19 credit hours. Erb Atkins sang the national anthem at the Spartans' annual baseball game at Jacobs Field/Progressive Field in her junior season and later sang at a Cleveland Indians game at the same field. In addition to competing at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Houston, she also performed the national anthem there.
Below is an audio recording of her rendition of the national anthem, which was played before numerous Spartan athletic contests.
"I would say that Esther has a passion for everything she does," Wheeler Marciniak said. "In addition to music and running, she is one of the most well-read people I know. She is constantly learning and keeping up on how the world is changing. She just can't do anything half way."
TEACHING AND MUSIC IN AUSTRIA
Erb Atkins had been a gifted musician and singer most of her life by the time she entered CWRU. She began playing the cello when she was three years old and played it throughout high school, but realized she could not continue to play it and pursue her voice program in college.
She earned a Fulbright Scholarship and went to Austria for two years to teach English and sing with the highly-acclaimed Arnold Schoenberg Choir. She lived with cousins in Austria, where she has a lot of family and would later return for more training.
In the fall of her senior season at CWRU, Erb Atkins decided to be a marathon runner and ran 60-80 miles a week in Austria. Eventually, with the help of well-known running coach Terrence Shea coaching her remotely, Erb Atkins' times were steadily improving and she was offered the opportunity to compete for the Austrian National Team.
NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION
She chose to return to the U.S. instead and began running with ZAP Fitness, a fully-funded running organization that allowed her to focus on her passion for running and competing for her country.
Erb Atkins, who joined the New York Athletic Club in 2013, was hired as an assistant coach at Rider University at the end of that summer and went back to being coached by Shea. "That shift gave birth to the new version of me," she stated. "I was finding a place where I can give back to the sport."
In the first fall at Rider, Erb Atkins placed third at the USA Marathon Championships in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota. She returned to the same venue in 2014 and captured the national title in a time of 2:34.01, which qualified her to represent Team USA at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, China.
Erb Atkins returned to Austria this past summer, staying at a cousin's apartment while he was away for three weeks. "It rekindled my love for running, particularly in that country," she commented.
She did her individual training in Austria for the 2015 World Championships in Athletics in Beijing, China before the U.S. training camp in Japan. "The training in Japan was my favorite part of the world championship experience," she said. "It was amazing to be with all these world-class athletes from different disciplines. Once we got to Beijing, it was much more intense."
Erb Atkins, who signed with Skechers this year, placed 24th in the World Championships before returning home for another very important event - her marriage to Cole Atkins, who is a full-time technical director at a local youth soccer club and still competes for ZAP Fitness, on Sept. 26th. This fall, she began assisting the cross country and distance programs at Appalachian State in Boone, NC, which has given her the opportunity to give back to the sport and be with her husband.
"Esther and Cole are such a great match," said Wheeler Marciniak, who delivered a speech at the couple's wedding. "They flawlessly navigate supporting one another in all their endeavors. Cole knows how to encourage her in a way that takes into account Esther's extremely high standards for herself."
Next up for Erb Atkins on the national stage is the Olympic Trials on Feb. 13. She begins preparation on Jan. 3 in Tallahassee, Florida and will remain there until heading to Los Angeles. Erb Atkins is currently the 20th fastest qualifier for the most competitive Women's Olympic Trials field in history.
"Esther continues to amaze me," Lanese said. "We spent some time together in Cleveland this summer and she shared her goals for the past World Championships in late summer. Much of the same from the CWRU days, but just elevated to another level. Today, it is such a thrill to see she is continuing to live her legacy in a new platform. From the mile to the marathon. Wow!"