Armstrong receives Big Ten Medal of Honor

May 28, 2008

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Call it belief, faith or trust. For University of Iowa senior Meghan Armstrong, it not only took her from Oregon to Iowa City, but it also helped mold her into one of the top distance runners in the nation.

Armstrong is a two-time indoor track All-American, placing ninth in the mile as a sophomore (4:46.65) and eighth as a junior (4:49.07). She added a cross country All-American award Nov. 19 by finishing 16th in the 6-kilometer national race (20:37), while the Hawkeyes finished 10th as a team. It took hard work and an unwavering belief in head coach Layne Anderson to reach those lofty accomplishments.

“Of all the coaches I talked to, I liked Coach Anderson the best,” said Armstrong, who also visited Memphis, Virginia and Portland. “Coach Anderson really talked me into the dream he had. He made me believe in his vision that we could get things done here.”

In fall, 2003, when Armstrong decided to attend Iowa, the Hawkeyes finished 11th in the Big Ten Conference cross country championships. It was Anderson’s first season as head coach at the UI. A recruiting class that included Armstrong, Molly Esche, Racheal Marchand and Jessica Schmidt cast bright light on the rebuilding project. All-American Diane Nukuri joined the program from Butler County Community College in 2006. The Hawkeyes gradually climbed the conference, regional and national standings. In four seasons, Iowa went from last in the Big Ten to top 10 in the nation. On the track, Nukuri, Marchand, Sarah Henize and Armstrong hold the school record in the 4×1,600-meter relay, set at the 2008 Drake Relays (19:15.42).

“It’s been exciting competing with that group,” Armstrong said. “It’s made me better because I’ve got them to train with. They set the bar that much higher for me because I want to be right there with them.”

Armstrong’s faith in her coach was put to the test again on April 4 when Anderson shared his lineup for the Stanford Invitational. Armstrong, the Iowa school record holder in the 1,500-meter run (4:17.41) and two-time All-American in the mile, was entered in a new event — the 10,000-meter run.

“I wondered why I was doing distance workouts,” Armstrong said. “I think Coach always knew I wasn’t going to be a miler. He’s a smart guy and he sees potential before anyone else can.”

During her first competition at the 10K distance, Armstrong ran 33-minutes, 28-seconds, finished as the fourth collegian in the race and automatically qualified for the NCAA National Championships on June 11-14 in Des Moines. Her time was also good enough to meet the 10,000 run B standard and qualify her for the Olympic Trials on June 27 in Eugene, Ore.

“I saw a winner. I saw a girl who could finish a race like very few I’ve ever seen with an explosive kick. She’s soft-spoken and is very coachable. She works hard and has untapped potential.”
UI head coach
Layne Anderson on
Meghan Armstrong

“The plan was to go in relaxed,” Armstrong said. “I didn’t go in with any expectations and it went a lot better than I thought it would. I was just going to give it my best shot and see what happened.”

Armstrong has made a career of giving her best shot while at the University of Iowa. She has qualified for the last nine NCAA running championships (three in cross country, three in indoor track and three in outdoor track). She has won multiple academic all-Big Ten Conference honors and volunteered more than 130 hours in the physical therapy department at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Armstrong works at Reach for Your Potential, a day care center in Iowa City for disabled adults. She graduated in May with a degree in integrative physiology.

Armstrong and football linebacker Mike Klinkenborg were named Big Ten Medal of Honor winners from the UI.

“I feel honored that both my academics and athletics have been noticed,” Armstrong said.

A native of Tualatin, Ore., Armstrong might eventually give graduate school a shot, but right now she is still chasing a running dream. When Armstrong graduated from high school, her family moved to West Virginia. Two years later they relocated to Knoxville, Tenn. Iowa feels like home to Armstrong now and running is her occupation.

“When I left Oregon, I was running from the rain,” Armstrong said. “I hate the rain there. I made a good decision coming to Iowa. I want to give running a shot first because I always dreamed of running beyond college. The Olympic Trials will be my first really big post-collegiate race. I want to go for the experience and the anticipation that I’ll be back.”

Armstrong has emerged as a household name among Big Ten running fans. She won the indoor 3,000 and outdoor 10,000 run titles as a senior in a league where it is not uncommon for All-Americans to be denied points in events because of the quality and depth of the field. She was named the league’s athlete of the week March 25 after winning the 1,500 run at the Shamrock Invitational in South Carolina in a regional-qualifying time of 4:26.62. Armstrong is the sixth two-time conference champion in Iowa history.

“Competing in the Big Ten is phenomenal,” Armstrong said. “This conference is always extremely strong and you become a better runner because of the competition.”

Like most Division I athletes, Armstrong boasted a long and impressive resume of accomplishments and accolades coming out of high school. Still, doubts existed early in her career.

“I questioned myself,” Armstrong said. “I remember lining up for my first cross country meet and thinking, `Why am I running in college? I’m never going to be able to do this.'”

Anderson thought otherwise and he knew he had a gem in Armstrong once he viewed her high school feats on video tape.

“I saw a winner,” Anderson said. “I saw a girl who could finish a race like very few I’ve ever seen with an explosive kick. She’s soft-spoken and is very coachable. She works hard and has untapped potential.”

In high school Armstrong trained 35-40 miles per week. Those totals were bumped up to 65-70 at Iowa. The increased mileage the past couple years was all part of Anderson’s master plan.

“If you have a kid with good success in one area, it’s tough to get them to believe they can excel at another distance,” Anderson said. “When Meghan placed 16th (at nationals) in cross country, that was all I needed to see. She was an automatic qualifier in her debut in the 10K and to beat the people she beat, you go hmm…”

Armstrong reached regional qualifying times in the 1,500 and 5,000 runs this season, but has opted to skip the regional championships and will compete only in the 10,000 at nationals.

The natural foot speed that helped Armstrong set the school record in the 1,500 is even more of a weapon in the 10K. At the Big Ten Championships on May 16, Armstrong closed in 2:27 over the final two laps to post an eight-second victory over runner-up Katrina Rundhaug of Wisconsin. Two days later, Armstrong was third in the 5K, four seconds behind winning teammate Nukuri.

Call it belief, faith or trust. For Armstrong, it is her secret to success.

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