How Drake’s foreign distance runners networked their way to Des Moines
DES MOINES—The Drake cross-country team has 25 runners, only four of which are long-distance.
Of course, this phrase only makes sense when you realize that ‘long-distance’ also means ‘from far away.’ Drake has four distance runners from countries outside the United States—one from Australia, another from Austria and two from Ireland. But how’d they get to Des Moines, Iowa, of all places?
They certainly didn’t run here. Sam King is a long-distance runner, and a fast one, at that, what with his 5k personal record (PR) of 15:11. But he speculated that running to Des Moines from his hometown of Perth, Australia—just under 17,200 kilometers (approximately 10,680 miles)—would take him a little over two years.
King took a much faster route to get to Drake. He exercised his networking ties to capture the attention of Mark Carroll, Drake’s head coach of track and field.
“I’d chatted to the coach a lot beforehand and done a lot of research,” King said. “I felt like this was going to be the right place for me.”
And that was it; chatting and research convinced King to leave the seaside, hop over the pacific and study actuarial science while running for Drake.
Blind Faith Recruitment
According to Coach Carroll, King’s recruitment story is unconventional for collegiate cross-country runners. To understand why, let’s take a look at the conventional recruitment system here at Drake.
Ultimately, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) determines if and how Drake recruits a runner. Carroll oversees recruitment, but it’s his assistant coaches, Lindsay Crevoiserat and Jay Koloseus, who will track a distance runner’s performance statistics over the course of their high school careers. This information is conveniently compiled online by a multitude of sites like MileSplit.com or DASH Athletics.
Say the coaches find a particularly talented female runner. She boasts a 5k PR of 16:14, which nudges the fastest of Drake’s standard recruitment times. Not only that, but she’s performed consistently over the course of her first two years in high school, in both long-distance running and in academics. She seems well-equipped to take on the academic-athletic duality Drake is looking for.
Sept. 1 of junior year is the earliest a coach may communicate directly with the athlete, according to the NCAA guidelines. These guidelines are set in place to protect talented runners from a bombardment of enthusiastic recruiters. The conversation is typically instigated with a modest email or a message on social media.
“If [the athlete’s from] Ireland, where I’m from, it’s easy,” Carroll said. “I just call over there and I say, ‘ok, would you happen to know who the coach is at this club where this athlete is?’ Now if it’s a country where we have no contacts whatsoever, it’s a lot more difficult. You’re relying on social media probably at that point.”
Carroll and Lindsay Crevoiserat, the assistant coach responsible for recruitment of women’s distance runners, agreed the initial contact is the hardest part of recruitment, both in finding contact information and getting an athlete to respond. Crevoiserat said if she sends out 100 emails, only 30 women may respond.
“The key is communicating with them and then getting them with the team, seeing if they’ll fit,” Crevoiserat said.
Getting the athlete with the team is where the discrepancy between international and domestic recruitment arises. American students typically take advantage of what’s known as an official visit—a 48-hour maximum, all-expense paid tour of the campus and facilities. The NCAA allows athletes to take a look at five universities under this official pretext no sooner than the start of their senior year.
The official visits are made available to international students, as well. But King, along with most of the international runners on Drake’s cross-country team, accepted a recruitment offer blindly, so to speak.
“If you’re going to make it at all in running, you’ve got to come [to the States],” said first-year long-distance runner James Maguire. “You’re not going to do it in a small place in Ireland…You know, me being Irish and Coach being Irish, he kind of was always looking at the scene and he found me. We were emailing in late March . By June it was done. I was down. I didn’t need to visit. It was just blind faith.”
It’s no coincidence that half the foreign, long-distance runners hail from Ireland, the same home country as Drake’s head coach of track and field. Much of recruitment is networking. That’s why the same national familiarity manifests on Drake’s sprinting team, as well; the assistant coach Ngonidzashe Makusha and two other student-athletes all come from Zimbabwe.
Carroll, himself, started his successful long-distance running career in Cork, Ireland. He still holds the Irish national record for a 3k. But after setting the record, he himself followed an Irish head coach to Providence College in Rhode Island in 1991.
“I think it probably sometimes makes Irish athletes feel more comfortable you have an Irish fellow running the program,” Carroll said. “That helps.”
Carroll said he gets about five to seven emails every week from Irish athletes eager to run in the United States. One of such emails came from now first-year accounting and finance student James Maguire.
Maguire’s small town of Bray, Ireland, nestled in the crevice between the outskirts of Dublin and the Irish sea, doesn’t foster many opportunities for long-distance running of international caliber, he said. With a competitive 3k PR of 8:42, Maguire always planned on coming to the USA, and he didn’t need to venture to Bulldog territory to solidify that ambition.
“Most of the time the students know if they’re coming [to the States], it’s going to be better than what they have at home,” Maguire said. “So, they show up, and they just do it. If you look at university running around anywhere else, it’s just not the same. England is the only place that comes close to competing here, and it’s not even on the same scale.”
Maguire said the lack of scholarships dissuaded him from attending an English university. The lack of personal commitment, on the other hand, pushed him away from America’s larger state schools.
“[At Drake] there’s a consensus on building each individual athlete,” Maguire said. “It’s not just feed-the-machine, do you know what I mean? They invest in you because they want you to get better. They care about you. It’s not like some of the bigger schools where if you get injured, they forget about you.”
The courtship changer: internet
Any student aspiring to run collegiately in the United States will find their interactions with university teams, state or private, facilitated by the NCAA.
This has been the case for over half a century. Carroll’s own recruitment, in the pre-internet era of the late 1980’s, consisted of glossy brochures and bulk-packages of information from each prospective university—the old-school courtship.
“You got that nice letter from the coach telling you that they’re interested in you,” Carroll said. “You have the prospects. You’ve got everybody’s pictures in there. It gives you the history of the team. I remember having a stack of those when I was being recruited from different schools.”
But the internet is changing the game, specifically for international athletes. In bypassing postal services, recruitment is getting faster. The NCAA’s communication restrictions are loosening. For example, a year ago cross-country coaches were not allowed to text an athlete directly; now they can.
Perhaps most importantly, the internet gave international runners a noticeable platform. Good runners don’t need to be national stars to attract university attention.
“That’s pretty much it, really,” Carroll said. “We’re looking for athletes all over the world, all over the United States that can come here and have a very successful and positive four-year experience.”