Tom Archdeacon: Cedarville’s ultimate ‘outdoor champ' headed to Olympic Trials

Excelling in outdoor pastimes is nothing new for Carsyn Koch, a Cedarville runner who is also a skilled hunter.
Excelling in outdoor pastimes is nothing new for Carsyn Koch, a Cedarville runner who is also a skilled hunter.

She is the national outdoor champion.

“I killed a bear — a 305-pound black bear — with a thirty-aught-six (.30-06) from about 25 feet when I was 14,” she said matter-of-factly.

“I can skin about any small animal you throw my way — rabbit, beaver, muskrat, you name it.

“I can canoe and kayak and in the winter we go snowshoeing.”

After growing up in northern Maine, where her father is a registered hunting and fishing guide, Carsyn Koch said, “My dad taught me how to do so many things that most girls don’t know how to do.”

She said she learned how to trap in the woods, fish for brook trout, hunt squirrels and partridge. And she can …

Oops, hold it.

I’ve gotten carried away here with the wrong resume.

The outdoor title the Cedarville University sophomore claimed in late May came when she won the NCAA Division II 800-meter women’s national championship in Bradenton, Fla. Two months before that she won NCAA Division II indoor 800-meter title in Pittsburgh, Kansas.

Early last month at Stanford University’s Payton Jordan Invitational, she set the all-time NCAA Division II women’s outdoor record in the 800 with a time of 2 minutes, 2.39 seconds. The mark she broke had stood for 17 years.

Friday night, Koch will compete in the 800 at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon. The top three finishers will head to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in August.

It’s safe to say Cedarville has never had a track athlete quite like her and you can probably make the same claim when you put her up against any of the elite female athletes to come out of the Miami Valley.

How many others can claim trophies in both the woods and on the track?

“We’re not Ohio State. Not Michigan, USC or Oregon,” said Cedarville coach Jeff Bolender. “We’ve had some good kids in the past, but clearly Carsyn is head and shoulders above the other athletes we’ve had at this time.

“Over the years we’ve had a few others go to the Trials (middle distance runner Jane Romig Brooker, race walkers Jill Zenner Cobb and Chad Eder and Erin Nehus-Vergara in the 10K) but it was always after they graduated. Carsyn’s excelling while she’s a student.”

Koch’s feat is further highlighted when you consider that among the top 10 collegiate 800 runners in the nation this spring — and she is rated No. 5 — she’s the only one not from a Division I school.

That anomaly does not go unnoticed, she said, as she recalled last April’s prestigious Mt. SAC Relays in California, where she finished fifth in the 800:

“I watched the replay and the first thing the announcer says is ‘Here comes Koch from Cedarville! …Where in the world is Cedarville?’ ”

She started to laugh:

“That’s the exact same vibe I got back in high school in Maine. We’d win the basketball championship or the soccer championship and the first thing people would say is ‘Washburn? Where is Washburn?’ ”

Likes a challenge

Koch said her hometown — Washburn, population 1,687 — is 30 minutes from the Canadian province of New Brunswick. She said she and her two sisters grew up outside of town on their parents’ 80 acres, much of which is in woods.

Peter, her dad, played soccer and baseball at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and her mom, Liane, was a high school soccer player and track athlete as well as a gymnast and figure skater.

At Washburn District High School, where her graduating class had 26 students and she was the valedictorian, Koch won 17 individual and team state titles.

“She was a multi-sport, multi-event athlete there,” Bolender recalled. “But in doing so many things, she never had a chance to develop into the middle distance runner she has become now.”

Coming out of high school she was under-recruited and — factoring in the size, the athletic opportunity and the chance to go to a conservative Christian college — she chose Cedarville over Brown University of the Ivy League and Colby College, a Division III school in Waterville, Maine.

“It’s the concept of bloom where you are planted,” she said. “That’s how it was in high school and how it’s become here.”

She’s majoring in nursing — she works part time as a nurse in Dayton — and minoring in Bible study and has blossomed as a middle distance runner.

“It took a little adjustment at first,” she admitted. “I started out freshman year with the indoor season thinking, ‘Oh, you know, I’ll do my best … I’m just a freshman.’

“But that mindset killed me. I missed the indoor nationals and that left a bad taste in my mouth. I should have had more confidence. But I started to work harder in the outdoor season and I got better.”

This season she said Bolender sat her down and asked: “How would you feel if we pushed you harder than ever before?”

“I wanted the challenge,” she said. “And for the first time I found out what it felt like to be totally spent. The workouts were significantly harder, but my times dropped.”

The girl whose best 800 time in high school was 2:21 would register the 2:02.39 just two years later.

“And a year ago Coach said to me, ‘You know the Trials are next summer? It’s an Olympic year,’ ” Koch said with a growing smile.

“And I was like, ‘Yeaaaah? OK. But what does that have to do with me?’

“He said, ‘You could make it.’

“And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s funny coach, whatever.’

“But as the year progressed, we went to a lot of big meets and I got the competition I needed and I got better. He was right.”

Tough road ahead

These days, Koch admitted, she still draws on those lessons she learned out in the woods from her dad.

“He didn’t get any boys,” she laughed, “so he worked with what he had. I learned a lot of things and how to survive if something happens. If I fall under the ice, I know what I’m supposed to do. If I need to make a fire, I know how to do it.”

This season she’s also showed she can handle herself alongside the top runners from the biggest collegiate track programs in the nation.

At the Trials, though, the field includes everyone, including the track veterans who compete in the top international events around the world.

The field has the nation’s top 32 qualifiers and the favorites include Ajee Wilson (1:57.87), along with six-time U.S. outdoor champion and 2012 Olympian Alysia Montano and Brenda Martinez, who won bronze at the 2013 world championships in Moscow.

The fastest college athlete in Eugene will be Oregon’s Raevyn Rogers. Koch is fifth among the collegians and 17th fastest overall in the field

“She’s back in the pack again, so she’s going to have to treat her first day of running as though it were the final,” Bolender said. “She’s got to run with the mentality that there is no tomorrow unless everything goes well today.”

Koch agreed: “I’m sure some people will look at me and see what I’ve done and say, ‘Who the heck is this? She hasn’t even been running very long.’

“I feel like I have the underdog thing going again and I like that. My goal is to make it to round two and be one of the top 16. I know there are going to be a lot of great athletes there who are planning to kick butt and I’m just excited to be in that company.” She started to chuckle: “Even if at the end, it’s not me … yet.”

Bolender likes that final sentiment:

“This is a special opportunity that she has earned. … All year we sent her to races in places like California and Texas and she didn’t melt.

“She has an ability to embrace the moment. Sure she deals with nerves, but she doesn’t allow them to overwhelm her. A lot of people can’t do that. They are overcome by anxiety and stress. But whatever the challenge, she’s been able to stand up to it.”

That would be on the track … and in the woods.

In Other News