For such a latecomer, Mindy Sawtelle sure made a habit of arriving early.
At the finish line, that is.
Sawtelle launched her IUP running career at the advanced age of thirty, but that didn’t stop the mother of two from regularly humbling competitors ten years her junior. By the time Sawtelle graduated in December, she had collected eight All-America certificates and won nine Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championships in track and cross country.
Those achievements were all the more extraordinary given that, in a typical day, Sawtelle was compelled to pull off a balancing act worthy of the Wallendas.
“She had all those responsibilities—not only marriage, but taking care of two children and making sure their needs were met—while she went to school and competed,” said cross country coach Ed Fry. “Plus, she always had a part-time job while she went to school.”
Good thing Sawtelle possesses exceptional aerobic capacity, for she scarcely had time to catch her breath. Besides raising eleven-year-old Kirsten and three-year-old Kylen with her husband, Scott, she kept working, kept running, kept up with her studies. In fact, Sawtelle finished with a cumulative 3.49 grade-point average as a Physical Education and Sport major.
But at times the burden proved so overwhelming she felt like the mythical Atlas, seemingly straining to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders.
“This past semester was especially rough,” Sawtelle said. “I had two night classes, I was running, I was working twenty hours a week as a secretary in Dr. [Richard] Fanella’s office—it was very time-consuming. My day was planned from beginning to nightfall. I don’t know how I functioned. Sometimes I’d be like a zombie. My teammates were really good about getting me through it.”
Those teammates, when not providing encouragement, often stood in awe of Sawtelle. Last fall, despite the myriad demands on her time, she ran as well as ever. Sawtelle earned PSAC Athlete of the Year honors in cross country, captured the NCAA Division II East Region title and East Region Athlete of the Year honors, and wound up sixteenth at nationals in Pomona, Calif., leading IUP to a tenth-place finish in the team standings.
Mindy Sawtelle with her children, Kirsten, left, and Kylen, husband, Scott, and dogs, Sydney, left, and Opie.
“Running cross country and track on top of having a family has to be really hard,” said junior Nicole Blaesser, who joined Sawtelle as an all-region selection. “I think we all kind of look up to her, being able to balance everything and still be so successful. I definitely admire her for that.”
What’s remarkable, given her hectic schedule, isn’t so much that Sawtelle competed at the varsity level, but that she excelled. In three seasons as IUP’s foremost distance threat (Sawtelle sat out her freshman year), she collected three All-America honors in cross country, two in indoor track, and three in outdoor track. That total equaled sprinter Amber Plowden, a 2002 graduate, for the most ever by an IUP runner.
“Eight-time All-American—that does sound pretty neat,” Sawtelle said. “But I wish it would have been better. My goal was to get a national championship. I almost did.”
Sawtelle placed second—the highest finish ever by an IUP cross country competitor—at the 2003 NCAA Division II meet in Cary, N.C. Buffeted by adversity at every turn, she somehow persevered, calling on some deep reservoir of determination to pass Janet Kogo of Harding on the final hill and secure the runner-up spot. Sawtelle covered the 6,000-meter distance in 20:59.0, trailing only Chelsea Smith of BYU-Hawaii (20:33.9).
“She made a couple mistakes in that race—she went out a little too fast and she went the wrong way in the beginning,” said Fry, who was named the PSAC Coach of the Year in cross country last fall for the fourth time. “But she hung on and came back for second. That just shows her true heart.”
Sawtelle’s grit and tenacity were also in evidence at the 2004 Division II meet in Evansville, Ind.
“There were a lot of times where she had to drive through some stuff where I know another person would have just given up,” Fry said. “For example, her second cross country nationals. It was really muddy and she fell twice, but somehow she still managed eighth place. And she had some physical problems that she fought through. She was pretty brave.”
And yet, Sawtelle can’t recall that race without dissolving into laughter. The reason? She inadvertently “undressed” a stunned competitor.
“I started down this little slope, and it was so muddy I started to fall,” Sawtelle said. “Well, what do you do when you fall? You grab whatever’s in front of you. I took down this girl’s shorts. I’ll never forget that. I remember she was wearing blue butt-huggers. We had to run this loop again, and the second time I fell and rolled down the hill. The last half-mile of the race it was uphill, in the mud and in cat litter [used to aid traction], and you’re literally on your hands and knees. I was a mess by this point. So I get to the finish line and I’m dying laughing.”
Sawtelle’s third and final season of cross country was no laughing matter, as she battled physical ailments throughout the fall. Not that they slowed her much. Sawtelle set a course record at Lock Haven while winning the East Region title, then was the top finisher out of the region at nationals for the third straight year. Her sixteenth-place performance in California is a testament to her fortitude: Eight runners ahead of Sawtelle keeled over from the ninety-degree temperatures, but she forged on and added to her collection of All-America honors.
That Sawtelle ran at all last season speaks to her dedication.
“I had, not an injury, but a stomach problem, I guess you could call it,” she said. “That affected me a lot. I actually had a doctor’s excuse to quit running. I showed the note to Coach Fry and he said, ‘Well, what’s this mean?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I think it says I should quit.’ But I wasn’t going to do that.”
After all, this is a woman who couldn’t conceive of life without running even after conceiving. Sawtelle entered a local race while ten weeks pregnant with Kylen (she won), continued running on a treadmill until the day she delivered, and made her IUP debut barely four months after giving birth. Sawtelle claimed All-America honors eight weeks later with a fourth-place finish in the 10,000-meter run at the Division II track meet.
She capped her career in California last fall as an eight-time All-American, a nine-time PSAC champion, and the winner of races ranging from 1,500 to 10,000 meters, over flat tracks and rolling hills, through snow, rain, mud, and, yes, even kitty litter.
Mindy Sawtelle, at the age of thirty, might have been a latecomer to intercollegiate athletics. But when it came to reaching the finish line, she was invariably an early arrival.