June 8, 2012
By Cassie Gage | SoonerSports.com
DES MOINES, Iowa – It was a simple text message from track and field administrative assistant Renee Smith, but it’s one pole vaulter Alex Acker is likely to remember for a very long time. The senior was entering the final weeks of her collegiate career and was in need of something – a sign, a note, a push, anything to get her over the mental anguish that had consumed her for weeks.
Acker opened her outdoor season with a win at the Bobby Lane Invitational, clearing 13-feet, 5 ¼ inches, but in the weeks that followed, she failed to clear anything higher than 13-1 ½. Acker was frustrated, and obviously so, this was her last chance to qualify for her first NCAA Championship.
|NCAA Outdoor Championships: Alex Acker Bio | Photo Gallery|
Then came that text message the week of April 30, just days prior to the last meet of the regular season. Acker was getting ready to compete at the Arkansas Twilight in a final tune-up prior to the Big 12 Championships and after running into Smith at practice, Acker got the sign, the note, the push she needed.
“The turning point was a random run-in with Renee Smith,” Acker said. “I saw her one day at practice and just opened up to her, saying ‘I am so nervous for this next meet. I just want to do well. It’s my last year.’
“Later that night she texted me and said ‘Just enjoy the ride. Don’t focus on the outcomes or heights. Just enjoy the ride and what you’re doing right now. You’re a great girl, and you need to be happy while doing this. I would hate to see you miss a good time in your life.’ That was pretty big for me, coming from her. It was so encouraging and I kept thinking about that.”
Acker broke her own program record in the event that Friday evening, clearing 14-1 ¼ to finish third overall. It was the start of a whirlwind month that ended Wednesday evening in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s often been said “Life is more about the journey than the destination,” but Acker will tell you without the destination in sight, the journey wouldn’t have been possible or nearly as satisfying.
“I know I’ve put in a ton of work, but I also recognize how many people put in work around me to help me get to where I am,” Acker said. “First and foremost, I’m thankful for Coach (Tim) Sullivan. I can’t believe he’s a volunteer coach. He’s at the track all day, every day. He’s had two All-Americans. I’m proud to say he’s coached me from the beginning to the end.
“Even when I was having a really rough time, some of the coaches like Coach (Chris) Huffins would come up to me and say ‘You’ve got to know you’re one of the best in the country. Don’t forget that.’ It kind of shocked me. I couldn’t believe that. I just assumed people swept you under the carpet when you’re not doing well. Everyone was so encouraging and it lifted me out of my slump.”
The Arkansas Twilight was the first piece to what has become a storybook career for the Erie, Pa., native. A transfer from West Virginia, Acker went on to finish second at the Big 12 Championships and what she did on May 25 in Austin at the NCAA West Preliminary will go down as one of the gutsiest performances in Oklahoma track and field history.
Acker entered the meet with one of the nation’s best marks after clearing that 14-1 ¼ in Fayetteville, but even after having two good meets, she endured an eight-attempt jump-off at the Preliminary – just to earn the 12th and final qualifying spot to the NCAA Championships from the west.
“The jump-off was nerve-wracking and really frustrating because I wanted more than anything to make it to nationals and my heart was pounding so hard,” Acker said. “I just kept saying ‘I want to do this so bad. I want to go to nationals. It’s my last year. I want to be an All-American.’ During the jump-off, you go big or go home. This is your last chance, you have nothing to lose. Never having been to NCAAs, I just really wanted to make it.”
Acker had been here before a year ago. And it ended almost tragically. She fell into the box on an attempt and was carried off on a stretcher. Despite the injury, she returned, clearing 13-3, yet unable to make it to the national meet. It stayed with her – all during the off-season and especially this year in Austin. She wasn’t going home empty-handed this time. She beat out Illinois’ Stephanie Richartz to win that spot and earn her first trip to the NCAA Championship.
With the dream a reality, Acker entered Wednesday afternoon’s competition with a renewed spirit. She passed at the opening height of 12-9 ½ and cleared each of the next four increments on her first attempt. It took her three tries to match her previous program best of 14-1 ¼. But what Acker did on her second attempt at 14-3 ¼ not only gave her a new Oklahoma program record, it secured a fifth-place finish for the senior. It’s the highest mark posted by a fifth-place finisher in the history of the meet.
It was the first All-America honor for her and marked the second consecutive year a Sullivan pupil earned national honors in the event. Acker became just the third OU All-American in the event joining Sarah Pappas (2011) and Leslie Dunlap (2002).
The mark also qualifies Acker for the U.S. Olympic Trials set for June 22-July 1 in Eugene, Ore. It’s also opened a door to a possible professional career. The journey has certainly been a roller coaster, but in the end, Acker wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
“Going into college, even just the beginning of this year, I’ve grown,” Acker said. “When you have a bad meet and you put so much time into doing a sport, you feel like it’s heartbreaking because you spend so many hours each day working on that. Student-athletes have a lot to deal with – competing and going to class, and it’s tough.
“The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was the mental aspect. I really started to enjoy competing again. Not doing so well humbled me. It made me be thankful for having the opportunity. Once I was able to calm myself and not have so much anxiety, that’s when I started doing better. When you’re relaxing and not trying so hard, that’s when you do better, when you enjoy it. I think emotionally that’s how you have to deal with it.”