Oct. 2, 2008
Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, Aug. 7, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2008-09 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Those not privy to an inside view of the University of Iowa cross country and track and field environment the past two seasons might have a hard time picking Jolly Burke from a lineup. Diminutive in stature, the shy distance ace has often run in obscurity behind All-Americans Meghan Armstrong and Diane Nukuri, who have since graduated.
Now it is Burke’s opportunity to forge her own stamp among the Hawkeyes as she chases the goal of joining her former teammates as one of the elite runners in the nation.
“In cross country I’m really focusing on being an All-American because I missed it by a half second last year,” Burke said. “That’s something I’m really working toward. For indoor track and field, I want to make it to nationals because I provisionally qualified (in the 5,000-meter run), then I had an injury and never really got the chance to race.”
In fall 2007, Burke placed 19th and was named all-Midwest Region in cross country with a 6-kilometer time of 20-minutes, 57-seconds. She was named second team all-Big Ten after finishing ninth at the conference championship with a time of 20:20. Then, at the NCAA championship Nov. 19 in Terre Haute, Ind., Burke was 44th overall with a time of 21:08.6. Ali Kielty of Arizona State grabbed the final All-American position with a time of 21:07.1. Her improvement is obvious — as a freshman Burke was 66th at regionals (19th as a sophomore) and 175th at nationals (44th as a sophomore).
Burke’s sophomore season of cross country provided several breakout performances which gave her momentum as she tackled the indoor track slate. A 10K, 5K specialist, Burke was in the process of logging her weekly 70-80 mile allotment when a mishap jeopardized the rest of her season. During a training run, Burke slipped on ice and fractured her sacrum, a large bone at the base of the spine and upper and back part of the pelvic cavity. Running came to a standstill. Walking and sitting was not done without discomfort.
“It was the toughest, most serious injury I’ve ever had,” Burke said. “It was in that part of your body that you can’t immobilize unless you go on complete bed rest. It was really hard and I still feel it sometimes, but I’m finally getting closer to being pain-free after several months.”
“Her attention to detail away from running, in addition to her work ethic in practice, is better than any athlete I’ve ever coached. There is never one ounce of doubt in my mind that everything she does academically, athletically and socially is all geared to being a great student and a great runner.”
UI head coach
Prior to the injury, Burke had established an NCAA provisional qualifying time of 16:43.14 in the 5K. She was 13th at the Big Ten Conference meet (17:05.63) and posted a collegiate-best 3K time of 9:54.62.
The fracture may have decreased Burke’s weekly running mileage total, but it didn’t weaken her desire. She spent hours in the swimming pool completing lap after lap. Her cross training also included bicycle workouts. In mid-August, Burke returned to the roads and immediately began covering 40 miles a week.
“Jolly takes great care of her body,” UI head coach Layne Anderson said. “She’s not afraid to cross train and she works hard in other areas — getting stronger in the weight room and making sure she’s healthy. Jolly is as committed as any athlete I’ve ever been around.”
That commitment carries over to the classroom, where Burke, a psychology major, has been named academic all-Big Ten.
“Sometimes there’s a lot of pressure in having enough time to get everything you need to get done,” Burke said. “But it all works out. You have to be organized and know when you’re going to have time to study and what you’re going to take on team trips to make sure you’re going to get all your stuff done.”
Anderson noticed Burke’s discipline and commitment early in her career.
“Her attention to detail away from running, in addition to her work ethic in practice, is better than any athlete I’ve ever coached,” Anderson said. “There is never one ounce of doubt in my mind that everything she does academically, athletically and socially is all geared to being a great student and a great runner.”
Burke grew up in Waunakee, Wis., and graduated from Madison-Edgewood High School, a stone’s throw from the rival Wisconsin Badgers. Her family has since moved to the Denver, Colo., area where Burke spent the summer as a preschool teacher.
“When I came to visit Iowa, everybody on the team and all the coaches were very sincere and they were very happy to be here,” Burke said. “After being a student I can totally tell that it is a great place to be and the people are genuinely happy with the program and their lives.”
Being the star in high school didn’t make Burke the Big Cheese on the University of Iowa campus. Performers like Armstrong, Nukuri, Kineke Alexander and Tammilee Kerr were already established college stars on the Hawkeye roster. But Burke was devouring that leadership and Anderson’s tutelage and began silently making a name for herself. It all led to the outstanding sophomore season.
“The ability to be in the program for a year and to be under Coach Anderson’s training helped a lot,” Burke said. “It was also a benefit having the ability to train with such great runners like Meghan and Diane.”
And all along, the gap between Burke and her All-American training partners was not as large as she might have envisioned.
“With the loss of Meghan, Diane, Jess (Schmidt) and Molly (Esche), all of our underclassmen are going to have to step up. We’re going to have to form a new team with the same goals we had last year.”
UI junior Jolly Burke
“Jolly was certainly right up on the fringe to being a headline runner last year, even though Diane and Meghan were often the ones you read about,” Anderson said. “She was right there on their heels. I hope this allows her to step into the limelight and assume the role of one of our top runners and one of the premier runners in the Big Ten and to become an All-American.
Burke has overcome illness and injury during her stay at the UI. She has also used her legs outside the collegiate arena, placing 20th at the 2006 USA Junior Cross Country Championships before improving to fifth during the 2007 race in Boulder, Colo., earning a position on the U.S. Junior National Cross Country team. That squad represented the United States in international cross country competitions, sending Burke to Orlando, Fla., to participate in the North American Central American Caribbean Cross Country Championships. The team’s scheduled trip to the World Championships in Kenya was canceled because of terrorist threats.
“Making the world team gave me a lot of confidence as a runner and let me know I could compete with the front packs in a lot of races,” Burke said. “It helped me because I know I’m at a different level than I had been previously.”
Burke has always been revered by her peers. Now she is using that respect to become a team leader. That has already begun during the cross country season.
“With the loss of Meghan, Diane, Jess (Schmidt) and Molly (Esche), all of our underclassmen are going to have to step up,” Burke said. “We’re going to have to form a new team with the same goals we had last year.”
Those leadership skills have not eluded the watchful eye of Anderson.
“I’ve seen a difference watching Jolly’s interaction with her teammates,” he said. “She’s more outgoing. She’s someone who will walk the walk and she is a living example of how you should do it.”