Before he narrowly missed winning an NCAA track and field championship; before he shattered a twenty-six-year-old conference record; even before he earned his third and fourth All-America honors, Sean Strauman had gained a measure of recognition accorded few IUP athletes.
That’s what comes from being hailed as “the world’s fastest tuba player” by a notable track website.
“I just had to laugh,” said Strauman, a senior 800-meter specialist who spends his fall months playing in the IUP Marching Band before turning to track in the winter and spring. “People are surprised when you tell them you’re in the band, and they’re even more surprised when you tell them you play the tuba. I’m obviously this little stick person—I’m 5-10 and weigh 125 pounds.”
In other words, Strauman hardly fits the image most people have of tuba players. Then again, he scarcely fit the image back at South Park High School of someone who would one day show his heels to collegiate competitors. The runner who never challenged for a state high school title now vies for national championships and reigns supreme in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
Strauman has won six PSAC 800-meter titles—three indoors, three outdoors—since arriving at IUP. At South Park, in suburban Pittsburgh, he won . . . well, little of note. Strauman never finished higher than seventh at the state meet. But at IUP, he’s been nothing short of spectacular. Last season, for example, Strauman placed second at the NCAA Division II meet indoors and ran a blistering 1:49.63 outdoors to eclipse a PSAC meet record set before he was even born.
“Coming out of high school, if you would have told me, ‘Sean, before you’re a senior in college you’ll run a 1:49 800,’ I probably would have just looked at you like, uh, okay,” Strauman said. “I mean, I didn’t break two minutes until my senior year in high school. Then I came to IUP.”
Suddenly he bordered on invincible. No PSAC runner has ever beaten Strauman, and he has regularly run stride for stride with Division I foes when IUP steps up in class.
Why the dramatic transformation?
“When I came here, the coaches tore apart my body form and built me back up the way that they wanted me to run—they changed my running style, everything,” Strauman explained. “I’m more dedicated now, too. I thought I was dedicated in high school—I ran maybe twenty miles a week. I try to put in forty-five, fifty miles a week now.”
The benefits are as apparent as Garfield’s paunch. The world’s fastest tuba player claimed his fifth and sixth individual PSAC titles last season to match the school record for men set by hurdler Derek Brinkley (1998-2001). Strauman highlighted a dominant indoor campaign by “three-peating” as the conference 800 champion, earning PSAC track Athlete of the Year honors, and nearly winning a national title in Boston. Strauman clocked a conference-record time of 1:50.62 at the NCAA meet, second only to Nick Lara (1:49.73) of Colorado’s Adams State.
“If I could change anything about that race, I might have started my kick fifteen, twenty meters earlier. I think I would’ve gotten closer to, if not maybe beaten, Nick Lara,” Strauman said. “My coaches said I should have run a little bit more aggressive, pushed a little bit earlier. But I thought I ran the race as perfectly as I could for that day. I can’t complain. Second in the nation, there’s only one spot greater than that. I mean, that’s awesome.”
So was his performance outdoors two months later at the PSAC meet in Shippensburg. Strauman again won the 800, in 1:54.13, although his victory was somewhat anticlimactic given what transpired in the preliminaries: He ran a 1:49.63 to shave forty-two hundredths of a second off the meet record, set way back in 1981 by Edinboro’s Rick Killian.
“I was ecstatic,” said Strauman, an accounting major who landed a spot on the 2007 United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Academic All-America team after raising his cumulative grade-point average to 3.74. “One of the officials came up to me and hugged me. I was like, what’s going on? Nothing like running the hardest 800 you’ve run to date and all of a sudden you have this guy come up and hug you. I thought it was pretty funny.”
Strauman finished fourth in the NCAA meet at Charlotte, N.C., three weeks later, giving him four career All-America honors. He hopes to earn two more before graduation, and to perhaps enter the IUP pantheon of national track and field champions.
But is he more likely to win an NCAA title indoors or outdoors?
“Indoors I think for me is better. I’m a better 800 runner indoors because, face it, it’s warm and there’s never going to be any wind,” Strauman said. “So I think my best chance is indoors. But the way I’m running right now, why not get both? I don’t want to sound cocky, but that’s what you’ve got to be thinking—get both.”
He’s not tooting his own horn, mind you, but Sean Strauman truly believes he can sweep both 800s. It’s a goal that drives him in every workout. The mission of the world’s fastest tuba player is to trade in a title provided by a website for one provided by the NCAA: national champion.