Through the first thirty-three years of his association with the IUP track and field program, Ed Fry coached javelin and discus throwers, decathletes and distance runners to national titles. Sprinters? Not a single one graced the honor roll of IUP champions.
Derek Brinkley and Amber Plowden
But this seeming cosmic imbalance vanished when a pair of thunderbolts struck on the final day of the NCAA Division II meet in May. Derek Brinkley and Amber Plowden, fleet-footed trailblazers, put IUP on the fast track at last, their reigns heralding the end of a long drought. Small wonder their coronation was greeted with giddiness: After decades without a single champion, Brinkley and Plowden brought two to their program in a span of thirty minutes.
Oddly, the routes they took to the winner’s platform in Edwardsville, Ill., were as different as Kathie Lee and Tommy Lee. Brinkley blistered the field in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles, as anticipated; conversely, Plowden’s victory in the 100-meter dash left Fry and sprints coach Dr. Bob Raemore positively flabbergasted. Plowden, too, for that matter.
“I honestly didn’t think I could win,” she said. “It was different with Derek, because everyone knew he was going to win—it was a given. But it was such a surprise for me, because everybody’s expectations were that I would win the 200.”
Emotionally drained following her victory in the 100, Plowden did well to finish sixth in the final of the 200 an hour later and garner All-America honors in both events for the second consecutive year. Brinkley also fashioned an All-America streak: He capped each of his four seasons by placing in the top five at the NCAAs. But winning at the NCAAs? That’s something Brinkley never envisioned when he enrolled at IUP.
“When I came here, I didn’t really think about nationals at all,” said Brinkley, a state hurdles champion as a senior at North Allegheny High School in suburban Pittsburgh. “Doc [Raemore] really put it in my mind that if I worked hard, I could do real well at nationals. He never said anything about winning, just that I could do real well.”
Consider just how well Brinkley performed in his final season: He won every 400 hurdles he entered, excepting the prestigious Penn Relays, where he finished fourth in a predominately Division I field; captured his sixth Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference hurdles title (he twice won the 110 highs); earned his second PSAC Outstanding Track Athlete honor; and lowered the school 400 hurdles record so many times that the life span of the existing standard seemed to approximate that of a mayfly.
Plowden’s junior season was equally spectacular. She, too, shattered records with metronomic regularity; finished undefeated in the 100 and lost only once in the 200; won conference titles in both sprints for the third time; and collected her second PSAC Outstanding Track Athlete award.
In what’s surely as obvious as the jut of Jay Leno’s jaw, Brinkley and Plowden, like twin meteors, have made a monstrous impact on the IUP program. Just as their coaches predicted they would.
“I don’t think Amber was at practice more than three weeks when I said to Ed, ‘Oh, we’ve got a flyer here. This girl’s really going to be good,’ ” Raemore recalled. “And Derek has been a dominating force in this conference from the day he first stepped onto the track. The last two years, especially, he’s made some terrific strides.”
In fact, Brinkley nearly finished with back-to-back NCAA 400 hurdles titles. He placed second as a junior to Gardner-Webb’s David Lloyd, who edged Brinkley by .11 seconds. To his credit, Brinkley utilized that heartbreaking defeat as a motivational tool. Every time he settled into the blocks this season, he conjured up an image of the numbers that flashed on the scoreboard at last year’s NCAAs, indicating the sliver of time that separated him from a championship.
“I definitely thought about it a lot,” Brinkley said. “I mean, I thought about it back in January when we were just starting practice. It was on my mind all the time.”
Brinkley ensured there would be no narrow defeat at this year’s nationals. He bolted from the blocks, turned on the afterburners down the stretch, and finished in a school-record 51.17 to demolish the field. Brinkley broke the tape .52 seconds before runner-up Noah Dean of Angelo State, the equivalent of a blowout.
“He won big, by over a half a second, which is kind of dominating,” said Fry. “There was no doubt after the second hurdle. He was gone.”
Brinkley vanquished not only the competition but the pressure. Even world-class athletes have been known to fold under the weight of expectations when they’re favored, but Brinkley simply shut his mind to everything but the race itself.
“I wasn’t concerned at all about the extracurricular stuff or even who I was running against. I knew I just needed to go out and run,” he explained. “My dad told me afterwards he was more worried about my falling. That’s what I was more worried about, me hitting a hurdle and stumbling or falling, because it was pretty much my race to lose.”
Plowden arrived in the winner’s circle from the opposite direction. Seeded nineteenth, the odds against her were as long as a Siberian winter.
“There was no pressure on Amber, that’s for sure,” said Fry. “She wasn’t even expected to get into the meet, let alone win it. So that had to relax her.”
Indeed, while some of the other finalists exhibited a classic deer-in-the-headlights look as they approached the starting line, Plowden betrayed no hint of nervousness. She acted as if she were about to race teammates in practice rather than the nation’s elite in the NCAAs.
“I was so calm,” said Plowden, a four-time City League sprint champion at Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School. “It was like my mind was blank and my body just did it on its own. Like I was totally somewhere else. I was running—I had my head down, had my eyes closed—and then I looked up at the end and it was like, wow, there’s nobody else here.”
Plowden hit the tape in a school-record 11.66 seconds, barely beating South Dakota’s Sara Deckert (11.69). The race was so close that neither knew initially who had won.
“Amber crossed the finish line and then she bent over to catch her breath,” Raemore recalled. “When she stood up, she looked at the scoreboard just as her name flashed up there in first place. She just stood there like a thirteen-year-old, with both hands on her cheeks and tears running down her face. She was just, I don’t know, stupefied, I guess.”
Plowden was just as stupefied to discover that not only is she the first IUP woman to win an NCAA sprint title—she’s the first from the entire conference to do so. Plowden greeted the news with the kind of skepticism many reserve for supermarket tabloid headlines.
“When Coach Raemore told me, I said, ‘No, there has to be somebody else, somebody way back in the archives somewhere, somebody y’all forgot about,’ ” she recalled. “Then he said, ‘No, Amber, I checked.’ So I thought, that’s kind of cool.”
What’s especially cool is that Plowden and Brinkley executed a breathtaking breakthrough this season. After all those years without a single sprint champion, the IUP track and field program hit the jackpot and crowned two. Giddiness reigned, with good reason.
For Amber Plowden and Derek Brinkley not only outran the competition —they finally put IUP on the fast track.