An unlikely All-American

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NC product one of the top racewalkers in the country

By Peter W. Zubaty, Sports Editor

Most college All-Americans reveal themselves early on, their precociousness a strong indicator of great things to come. Others are late bloomers.

Then there’s three-time NAIA All-American racewalker Nicole Furnish, who was introduced to her discipline just four years ago and now has her sights set on qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

“Sometimes you find your niche without realizing it,” said Furnish, a Lindsey Wilson College senior. “I just wanted to improve on my running time. It was never about being an All-American.”

By her own admission, Furnish was an average runner during her days at Nelson County High School. After graduating in 2007, she headed south to Lindsey Wilson College and will graduate in December with a degree in middle grades education.

“Nicole started out with us as a student who was just interested in participating,” Blue Raider track and cross country coach Edwin Hagans said. “She’s changed quite a bit.”

Furnish walked on to the Blue Raider cross country team in the fall of her freshman year, and was able to make some improvements upon her high school times. But that wasn’t enough.

She approached Hagans and asked him what she could do to help out the team, and he suggested she try racewalking, an Olympic sport that maintains an underground status largely in part because it’s not something you’ll find on the heat sheet at your high school meets, let alone at the NCAA level. It’s a growing sport at the NAIA level, but still flies under the radar.

“I was kind of excited to try something new,” Furnish said, so Hagans had her watch teammate Amanda Johnson work out on the treadmill and study Johnson’s technique.

“If you watch it (for the first time), it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen, especially for guys” because of hip gyrations that don’t come natural for males, she said. “We call it ‘glorified waddling.’”

In running, Hagans said, there are really no strict rules as far as technique goes. Racewalkers, on the other hand, have two.

“You must maintain visible contact with the (racing) surface at all times,” he said. And, “at the point of contact, you must have a straight leg until it passes your center of gravity.”

Sounds simple enough, but break either of those rules and you’re disqualified, same as you would be if you have a false start or drift outside of your lane if you were a sprinter.

“It kind of looks like straight-leg marching, but at a fast pace,” Furnish said.

Her first few timed races, Hagans said, Furnish clocked in at 20-plus minutes for a 3K distance — close to her cross country running times at that distance. By the end of her freshman season, however, the improvement was dramatic, and Furnish missed qualifying for the NAIA indoor nationals by just 20 seconds, leading Hagans to make the “easy call” and award her a scholarship.

“Colleges have a knack for taking the rough material high school coaches are able to uncover and polish it,” said Dan Bradley, Furnish’s coach at Nelson County.

Furnish arrived in a big way her sophomore indoor season, qualifying for nationals with a 17:18 time, then shattering her personal best at the national meet with a fourth-place finish, a 15:58 time and the first of her All-American honors.

“It really fueled the flame for her internally,” Hagans said. “It’s an incredible thing.”

Bradley said Furnish’s arc of improvement was surprising from a physical standpoint, noting that she looks nothing like the runner of her high school days.

“When she went to college, her focus on athletics has totally transformed her body,” he said. “Mentally, it’s not a surprise though. Nicole has always been a very determined young lady,” which is also reflected in her schoolwork, where she’s a four-time academic all-conference honoree.

She finished her sophomore outdoor track season with a seventh-place finish at nationals, then exploded during her junior year, supplanting Johnson as the Blue Raiders’ top racewalker — “It came as a shock to everyone,” Furnish said — and twice set new school records at 3K in the indoor season, her best time a 14:43.24 at the DePauw meet, and finished fifth at nationals to garner her second All-American award.

“I get so into it that I don’t always enjoy what I’ve done, (but) it’s fun for me to push myself,” she said. “I’ve never been satisfied just being stagnant; I’ve got to (set a personal record) every time out.”

Her junior outdoor season resulted in even more improvements, including three meet wins at the 5K distance, setting meet records at Berea and Cedarville, Ohio, as well as winning the Mid-South Conference championship with a record performance and went on to finish ninth at nationals. She even topped her best 5K running time at the Cumberlands meet.

For those efforts, she was named USA Track and Field’s Racewalker of the Year for 2010 in Kentucky.

Hagans said he owes that to Furnish’s dedication, and not just during the season. “She found out that she really liked doing it,” he said.

Furnish’s senior indoor season has been strong as well, as she delivered the third-best time in the nation at the DePauw meet, and finished fourth at nationals to grab her third All-American award.

Hagans said Furnish has come out of her shell through her success, growing from a shy freshman to a poised and outgoing leader for the Lindsey Wilson track and cross country teams, and an ambassador for the sport of racewalking, including helping out as an instructor at clinics for elementary school students.

“She’s changed quite a bit,” Hagans said.

The cold weather has made for a tough start to the outdoor track season, but Furnish has already qualified for the NAIA nationals as well as the USATF nationals. If she meets the standard at the USATF meet in the summer, a trip to the Olympic Trials awaits. Schedule conflicts last summer kept her from competing in the USATF meet.

“It’s something I definitely want to at least try,” she said, if for no other reason than to have an opportunity to measure herself against the best in the nation.

And if she were to qualify for the Olympics?

“I think that would be the happiest day I’ve had, so far,” Furnish said.

Bradley doesn’t think it’s all that far-fetched; her best is definitely yet to come.

“I believe that Nicole is one of those people who every chapter in her life is better than before.”