NCAA Championships no Waterloo to Shanna Sparks | NevadaAppeal.com
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NCAA Championships no Waterloo to Shanna Sparks

Dave Price

Shanna Sparks really wasn’t sure she wanted to join her University of Colorado teammates on the 12-hour drive to watch the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships Monday in Waterloo, Iowa.

There was nothing disrespectful about her feelings, it’s just that she wanted to be out on the Irv Warren Golf Course running in the women’s championship race – not as a spectator carrying crutches.

Sparks had been down this same bumpy road off and on when she was running at Carson High School the last four years. Her many successes during that time had been mixed with misfortune, namely an assortment of injuries and illnesses.

The successes outweighed the misfortune because Sparks won three state titles for Carson (one in cross country and two on the track) during her freshman and sophomore years, and best of all, she had received an offer to sign with one of the nation’s most prominent collegiate programs for distance runners.

Sparks wanted to meet the challenge and felt she was in the best shape of her life when the cross country team met to begin its season in August. The summer conditioning paid off because she earned a varsity spot at Colorado’s Open/Alumni/Time Trial in Boulder on Aug. 30, no small achievement because the Buffaloes featured a veteran group that included three returning All-Americans (Sara Gorton was an NCAA indoor track champion in the 5,000 meters last winter).

Sparks, who was the only true freshman to make the traveling squad, solidified her position when she placed 16th overall and was the fifth runner for the Buffaloes at the Rocky Mountain Shootout in Boulder on Oct. 4.

Then misfortune struck, again.

Next on the schedule was the NCAA Pre-Nationals on Oct. 18 in Waterloo, but she felt pain in her hip flexor when she woke up that Friday morning. Warming up for the race the next day, she noticed the hip flexor pain was actually secondary to the pain in her quad. During the race, the pain intensified to the point where Sparks had difficulty picking up her left leg, but she still finished 77th in a field of 222 runners with a time of 22 minutes-flat for 6 kilometers.

When the team returned to Boulder, Sparks saw a doctor and had an MRI done on her quad and hip, which revealed that she had a stress fracture in her left femur. She was put on crutches for four weeks and told not to cross train for 10 weeks, according to Penny Sparks, her mother and assistant cross country coach at Carson the last four years.

“She will not be allowed to run until she is cleared by the doctor in January, if the MRI shows her stress fracture is healed, but she will be allowed to do limited cross training in December,” Penny Sparks said.

Understandably, the 18-year-old Sparks was devastated to hear that her season had ended with yet another injury. It was a tough break, yet Sparks made the trip to Waterloo and not only saw Colorado’s women finish fifth as a team, but saw Dathan Ritzenhein emerge as the men’s individual champion.

Now, she’s thankful for having made the trip.

“Even though it was hard to watch because she wanted to race so badly, it did more to motivate her than anything,” Penny Sparks said. “They had several carloads of past and present CU runners that traveled to Iowa to support their team and watch the races. There were more than 70 of them, including the competing team, that went out to dinner the night before the race. Shanna said it was awesome having so many CU people together for dinner.”

Shanna was motivated enough to get on her cell phone and call her mother to give a play-by-play account of the races.

“She told me that she is glad she got this injury because it has made her realize how much she loves running,” Penny Sparks said. “She said these past six weeks she has done a lot of serious thinking about her running and her goals for herself and she is now ready and motivated to take the next step, and she is looking forward to the challenge and the goals she has made with herself.”

Call it a silver lining. And unlike Napoleon in 1815, it appears Sparks is returning from Waterloo to run another day.

Dave Price is a sports writer for the Nevada Appeal