Skip to navigation Skip to content Skip to footer

University of Rochester Feature: What Drives A National Champion to Succeed?

University of Rochester Feature: What Drives A National Champion to Succeed?

From University of Rochester Athletics, Dennis O'Donnell

There is a common thread that unites Rochester's individual national champions. Their coaches had the confidence that the athlete could succeed at the highest possible level.

Link to Story on UR Site
           
The sport itself does not matter: track and field, cross country, tennis, golf. The championship coaches – Timothy Hale, Jacqueline Blackett, Peter Lyman, Richard Johnson, Jay Petsch - all shared the same advice: You can do this.
           
A Three-Time Champion Who Nearly Won Four
Josefa Benzoni '89 won three national championships in track and field. She was nipped for the 1987 outdoor 1,500 meters title in the final stages of the race. Benzoni fed off that performance, winning the indoor 1,500 in 1988 and 1989, as well as the 3,000 meters in 1989.  
           
 "One must recognize and accept that any one of the competitors is strong enough to win on a given day," Benzoni said. "Therefore, it is of utmost importance to believe in yourself. Run your race, not theirs."

One of Blackett's most important contributions in the winter of 1989 was instilling confidence in Benzoni: believe in yourself. No one will conquer you when you run your race. 
           
When Benzoni won the 1,500 title in 1988, she broke the NCAA record set by Mary Schlick of Macalester in 1987. She repeated as champion in 1989, winning by four seconds.. "I knew my competition and believed I was the strongest mentally and physically that day," Benzoni said.
           
Fueled by Benzoni's two titles, the 1989 Yellowjackets wound up second nationally, their highest ever finish at NCAAs. Five women – Natalie Anderson, Lesa Hojnicki, Jessica Lyon, Anita Acre, and Benzoni – combined for 31 team points.
 
It Began With A Long Race -- Two of Them, Actually David MollerRochester's first individual national champions came at the same NCAA outdoor meet. David Moller won the 3-Mile run (now the 5,000 meters) and Anthony Palumbo won the triple jump in 1974. "Our workouts were designed to peak at the end of season," Moller said, "so intensity always increased up to the week before and then relaxed the week of a major race. I remember Coach Hale said he thought I was good enough to win."

In the fall of 1973, he ran in the College Division cross country race. (This was equivalent to Division II these days.) There didn't appear to be major differences between College Division XC and Division III track and field. "Coach Hale mentioned a few of the runners he thought would be competing to win, so if a runner from that college jersey was in the front pack, I assumed he was a threat."

His win in the 3-Mile Run led him into the 1974 cross country season where he won the Division III championship by more than 12 seconds. "It was muddy, cool, cloudy, drizzly," Moller said, "my type of day for cross country running."

An Injury Proved Beneficial
In 1974, Palumbo pulled his hamstring on the approach for his first long jump in the opening meet at Lehigh on April 6. He finally jumped on May 11 at the New York State outdoor championships. He missed six meets. "It was difficult," Palumbo admitted. "But this unplanned 'taper' was necessary for my body to recover from all the heavy lifting that I had done during the winter."
 
At the indoor state meet in his senior year, Palumbo led the triple jump with a distance of 46'5". Colgate's John Pottle cleared 46' 11 ¾". Palumbo jumped a personal best 47' ½". "Whenever there is a task that seems impossible (now)," Palumbo says, "I think about that day and gain confidence." 
 
At NCAAs, his right instep hurt so badly, he worried that he might not be able to jump.  A visit to the trainer resulted in two hours of heat, massage, and finally the application of ice. Nothing was helping.
 
At noon, he iced his foot to numb it and wrapped athletic tape around the right shoe to support the instep. He didn't want to take typical warm-up approaches, concerned an injury would knock him out.
 
His first jump covered 48' and Palumbo noticed the pain was gone. All of his other jumps exceeded 49'. His best was 18' on the hop, 16' for the step, and 16' for the jump – goals he hoped for while training.
 
Robert Ryan almost made it a threesome of national champions in one year. He finished second in the decathlon. "Bob was a great athlete able to do all the events so well," Palumbo said. "He was a fearless pole vaulter and high hurdler."
 
Putting It In Perspective 

Michelle Mazurik Maybaum won the 1986 55 meter dash title, one year after finishing third. In the 80s, Rochester was a stronghold for women's track and field. Renee Schmitt Somerville won the 1985 heptathlon. Benzoni won three national titles in 1988 and 1989.
 
Maybaum had a terrific career as a sprinter: six All-America awards plus a national title. She tied her success to several factors: quickness, speed, and Blackett's advice as a coach.
 
"Coach told me she could see me let up when I would get close to the runner in front of me instead of continuing to pick up speed," Maybaum said. She hadn't thought of the mental component of her races. From then on, Maybaum would spend time before each race picturing herself passing runners in front of her and winning. "I guess that worked."


Setting Up His Strategy
Tom Tuori '87 finished third in the outdoor 1,500 meters as a sophomore and sixth as a  junior. Injuries played havoc with him from December 1985 (junior) to February 1987 (senior). He ran time trials in dual meets to prepare for a hard 1,500 at NCAAs. He ran three races at 4-minute mile pace for three-quarters of a mile, slowing at the end. 
 
When he stepped to the line at NCAAs, the favorite was Arnie Schrader of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the two-time defending national champion. Tuori's race plan was to push the pace. He got in front early, then settled into a 59-second per lap pace. Schrader was on his outside shoulder in lane 2, pushing to take the lead despite the pace. Tuori kept the lead for 500 meters dropped behind Schrader and let him take the lead.
 
He stayed behind for a lap and a half, then pushed into the lead with one lap left. He increased the pace. On the backstretch, Tuori went into an all-out sprint with 250 meters left. Schrader never countered the maneuver and Tuori hit the final straightaway with a 10-15 meter lead. He finished with a UR record of 3:46.08.
 
When Tuori crossed the finish line as champion, his first thought was that he and Hale had won a title. Within seconds, he was joined by Benzoni who hugged him joyously. Tuori was warming up for his race when Benzoni was nipped in the women's 1,500. "Josefa's was one of the gutsiest and toughest races I have ever seen anyone run at any level," Tuori said. "Josefa's pure joy at my victory is probably what stands out the most in my mind. I cherish that memory as much as I do the victory itself."
 
The Essence of Multi-Tasking Two Rochester athletes have won national championships in the multi-events at NCAAs. Each did it as a sophomore: Renee Schmitt Somerville '87 won the 1985 heptathlon; Kylee Bartlett '19 won both the pentathlon and the heptathlon outdoors this spring.
 
Bartlett is only the third Division III woman to win both the pent and the hepts in the same academic year.
 
At the pentathlon, Bartlett struggled with the first two events – the hurdles and the high jump. "Jay knows how hard the multi is mentally," Bartlett said, speaking of Petsch. "He encouraged me to bring some anger to the shot put to put myself back in it." She finished second in the shot put and that pushed her into first place through three events. She clinched it with a PR in the 800.
 
"It meant the world to hear Coach Jay say he was proud of me," Bartlett wrote. "He told me many times throughout the day, 'That's the beauty of the multi. It's never over 'til it's over'."
 
Somerville hooked up in a good two-year battle with Shawn Lawson of Occidental in 1985 and 1986. Lawson won the 1984 crown. Somerville won the 1985 title by 17 points over Lawson. A year later, Lawson regained the trophy with a 140-point win over Somerville.
 
Track & field was not her only sport. Somerville played four years of volleyball. As a senior, she played for UR's first NCAA playoff team, leading the team in three stat categories.
 
Opposites Attract, But So Do Similar Styles
Bob Swartout '83, '92M and Alex Gaeta '83, '85M, '91PhD didn't play together in tennis in their first two years. In 1981-82, they spoke with Lyman and asked to be paired. "Peter was reluctant to pair us," Swartout said. "Both of us 'pounded the ball'. Peter wanted to put a finesse player with a power player."
 
As a doubles team, Gaeta and Swartout started 8-0. "We firmly embraced the philosophy that you win as a team and you lose as a team," Swartout said. "Doubles teams are the smallest teams in sports, but to be successful, it was important to cross from an individual sport to a team sport mentality."
 
At the 1983 individual championships, the UR duo posted four straight wins to set up a title meeting with Ray Miller and Cris Bacharach of UC Santa Cruz. All three sets in the title match went to tiebreakers. UR prevailed in the first set and UCSC won in the second set.
 
"This was one of the most stressful matches for me and one of the best examples of our 'win as a team, lose as a team' philosophy," Swartout said. In the third set tiebreaker, Santa Cruz held championship point. Swartout served and Gaeta earned a volley winner. That evened it. Swartout then served and Miller couldn't return it, putting UR up championship point. Bacharach's first serve to Gaeta was long. On the second serve, it hit the bottom of the net and the double fault gave UR the win.
 
Swartout's parents were able to see the match (played in Albany). As his mother was getting ready to shoot a photo of Lyman and his players, someone called out "Make sure the trophies are right side up".
 
"So in the photo, Alex and I are looking down to make sure the trophies are right side up and Peter was looking at the camera," Swartout said. "The smile on Pete's face captures the emotion of the day."
 
A Different Form of Problem-Solving
Stephen Goodridge '08 was supposed to take an Optics final during the week at the 2006 NCAA golf nationals. Johnson offered to proctor it. The professor said Goodridge should take it at 5 pm in Nebraska on the final day of NCAAs – the same time that his classmates were taking it on the River Campus.
 
Johnson couldn't promise that. If Goodridge was shooting poorly, he would tee off at 8 am and be available to sit for the test at 5 pm. If he was doing well (which Johnson hoped), he might tee off as late as 1 pm. Well, Johnson was told, do the best you can.

There was plenty of reason for optimism. In the first nine tournaments in 2005-06, Goodridge finished in the top five every time. He had one outright win and tied for first two other times.
  
On the first day of nationals, he shot a 77. Goodridge called it "a very up and down round. On the front nine, I had a couple birdies and triple bogey. The rest of the day was a struggle to make pars and 77 wasn't a bad score. It wasn't like I was way behind."
 
Goodridge found his game the next two days, shooting an even-par 71, then a three-under 68. As Day Three ended, he was in first place by one stroke. The next day was the last day of nationals and the Optics final was looming.
 
No, he didn't sleep well that night. "The adrenaline kind of carries you through," he said. "The 3rd round 68 really vaulted me up the leaderboard."
 
After breakfast, he took the first half of the Optics final in 90 minutes, then headed to the course to practice before teeing off. Concentration during the test was tough. "It was very difficult," he said. Once he got to the course, he stopped thinking about the test – the second half would come around 9:45 that night.
 
He birdied his first hole and from then on, "it was all about trying to hit golf shots".
 
His most memorable shot came on his 16th hole. He held a two-shot lead and was 50 feet from the hole. His opponent had just chipped in for birdie from beyond the green. "It could have been a two-shot or three-shot swing," Goodridge said, but it only ended up being a one-shot swing. "We went on to tie the last two holes and I won by two shots."
 
After the banquet and three major awards – medalist in Division III, Most Outstanding Player in Division III, and First Team All-American – it was back to Johnson's room and the last 90 minutes of the final. He wound up with a B+ for the class.
 
That stands out very well in this group of athletes who came up with the A+ effort in some of the toughest competitions of all.