Oct. 26, 2008
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The path to success is easier traveled without barriers obstructing the way. But overcoming obstacles is what helped define Sarah Arens as both a track star and a person.
Arens graduated from tiny Remsen-St. Mary’s (Iowa) High School in 1999 and despite receiving numerous queries from smaller colleges, enrolled at the University of Iowa and joined the cross country and track and field teams. It didn’t take long for her to dispel the myth that she would be lost at a large state university.
“When I was first looking at schools, people told me that the University of Iowa was so large that I would just be a number,” Arens said. “That was the furthest from the truth. Iowa is an institution that was a family. That included everyone from the administration, guidance counselors, coaching staff and teammates.”
Arens leaned heavily on her extended family at the UI when tragedy struck during her sophomore and senior years. On April 29, 2001, Arens’ brother, Ben, was killed when the four-wheeler he was riding struck a car at a blind intersection. In October, 2003, her fiancé, Seth Bailey, passed away from cancer.
“When you’re in college you think you’re invincible,” Arens said. “Nothing can stop you and then your life is altered with the shocking realization that nothing is permanent and that life can change and you have to adapt to it. People at Iowa bent over backwards to help me, whether it was training on the track at alternative times or accommodating me to run home for family concerns. I’ll never forget their words of wisdom and their compassion.”
“When I was first looking at schools, people told me that the University of Iowa was so large that I would just be a number. That was the furthest from the truth. Iowa is an institution that was a family. That included everyone from the administration, guidance counselors, coaching staff and teammates.”
Arens grew up wanting to be an Iowa Hawkeye. A runner-up finish as a high school senior in the Drake Relays 3,000-meter run prompted interest from Baylor and Kansas. Phone calls from Iowa State were not returned.
“There was no question where I was going,” Arens said. “I was so happy to be contacted by the University of Iowa. I came down to meet the team and I fell in love with the program and really felt at home. My entire career I felt that it was just a blessing to be here.”
Arens competed for four different cross country coaches during her time at Iowa — Sara Swails, Joan Hansen, Wayne Angel and Layne Anderson. Prior to the 2007 season, Arens still had the seventh-best times by a Hawkeye cross country runner at 3,000 meters (10:41) and 6,000 meters (21:58). Arens was a three-time academic All-Big Ten selection, a member of the USCCA All-Academic team in 2004 and all-region in 2003. In track, she was a two-time national qualifier in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. She held the record in that event (10:34.50) for four years until it was surpassed in April by Jessica Schmidt (10:32.50). Arens still owns the ninth-fastest UI time in the indoor 3,000 (9:56.85) and the 10th-fastest time in the indoor mile (4:52.18). She was all-Midwest Region in the steeplechase in 2003 and was a four-time academic All-Big Ten selection.
“Sarah is an awesome person and she was a great team leader,” said UI head coach Layne Anderson. “She was running the distance medley at Big Ten’s and with a lap to go she felt pain in her leg. Then she couldn’t feel her leg. She had fractured her fibula while running, but she kept working and striving and limped across the finish line.”
That sort of determination helped Arens become a success professionally with an inevitably bright future in athletic administration. She received a bachelor’s degree in finance from the UI in 2003 and a master’s degree in athletic administration from the UI in 2005. Dr. Christine Grant interested Arens in Title IX and helped her land internships with the Olympic Committee (2002). She also worked at the Para-Olympics in Greece in 2004. Arens was chair of the student-athlete advisory committee (SAAC) and in its second year jumped on board to promote the annual Hawkeye Day of Caring. She was founder of the Hawkeye PRIDE program (perseverance, respect, integrity, determination, equality), which is still going strong and recently received national recognition.
“When you’re in college you think you’re invincible. Nothing can stop you and then your life is altered with the shocking realization that nothing is permanent and that life can change and you have to adapt to it. People at Iowa bent over backwards to help me, whether it was training on the track at alternative times or accommodating me to run home for family concerns. I’ll never forget their words of wisdom and their compassion.”
“Iowa puts opportunities in front of you and encourages you to chase them” Arens said. “It wasn’t just about being an athlete, it was about developing as a person.”
From 2005-06, Arens worked at the NCAA in Indianapolis as an intern in membership services. She was offered a position to stay with the NCAA, but opted to accept a position at Stanford University as assistant director of compliance services. Her duties are to make sure the 800 Stanford student-athletes maintain their eligibility and amateurism.
Arens was hired at Stanford the same week as athletics director Bob Bowlsby, who served in that same capacity at Iowa from 1991-2006. The two, who were familiar with each other at the UI and had offices across the hall.
“I was a student-athlete representative on the board of control (at the UI) and Bob Bowlsby was on that committee,” Arens said. “He was always so incredibly supportive. We would go to the Big Ten meetings and everyone would mention how they never met their athletic director. I was so proud that I knew him really well. That’s a real testament to the kind of athletic director he was, that he would take time to know the students. He sincerely cared and I really looked up to him.”
Arens said she loved her position at Stanford and during that tenure she was working toward “more of an administrative role.”
“(At Stanford) I had my nose in the book and I was dealing with the legalities and it was a great education working with that,” she said. “But I miss working one-on-one with coaches and students, so my goal is to move up to a higher administrator so you are actually working with the teams a little bit closer.”
Anderson said that day could be right around the corner.
“Don’t be surprised when Sarah’s accepts a high-level administrative position at the collegiate level,” he said. “She’s on the fast track and that speaks to her character, her motivation and her drive. She had to move forward because this is what Seth would have wanted and this is what her brother would have wanted.”
On Oct. 7, 2008, Arens was named director of compliance/student services for the West Coast Conference. In her position Arens is responsible for the conference’s adherence to NCAA rules and regulations and for the continued development and maintenance of the conference’s compliance program. In addition, Arens will work with the WCC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) to oversee efforts to enhance the student-athlete experience.
“Iowa was a way for me to cope and it provided the opportunity to survive personal struggles,” Arens said. “That was the kind of strength and encouragement I needed to pull me forward, not only to get back on the track, but to have the courage to pursue my dreams again — to have that type of support and strength after life-changing events was what it took to propel me into the future.”
Arens is running straight ahead into that bright future, both literally and figuratively. She trains 40 miles a week, which she sheepishly admits is a low total for a former Division I distance runner. But that hasn’t stopped her from joining former teammates Michelle Lahann and Becca Thompson from annually getting together to complete a marathon. Arens met current boyfriend Chris Wilhelmi when both worked in Indianapolis. When Arens moved to Palo Alto, Calif., Wilhelmi followed to pursue law school at Santa Clara University.
“Chris has brought tremendous joy, renewed my spirit and is a dear for supporting my many and often crazy aspirations,” Arens said.
With family still residing in northern Iowa, Arens said she returns to the Hawkeye State as much as she can, which translates to an average of four times a year. She was back for the funeral of former head track and field coach James Grant and made an appearance at the Musco Twilight Invitational track and field meet May 3.
“I remember being a little intimidated just by the size and not knowing if a small-town Iowa farm girl could make the team at the University of Iowa,” Arens said. “Coming back just warms my heart. It’s coming home. The family is so tight at Iowa and the ties are so great that it absolutely feels like coming home.”
Returning to the UI has become an almost mystical journey for Arens, who recalls a phrase coined by head men’s track and field coach Larry Wieczorek.
“Coach Wiz called it the Power of the Hawks,” said Arens as she glanced skyward. “The Power of the Hawks circling at practice and I don’t think I recognized that power until I looked back. I see Iowa gave me the foresight to look ahead and anything I wanted to achieve, I could.”
Even with barriers in the way.