An Athlete's Perspective - Jordan Neil - USA Athletics Scholarships

An Athlete’s Perspective – Jordan Neil

jordanneil

Jordan Neil may not be a name that many people have heard of despite PBs of 7:59i and 3:43. The Northern Ireland native begain his NCAA career at McNeese State in Louisiana before transferring to East Carolina. This is his story, told in his own unique way. (Jordan’s Power of 10)

The Story So Far

Just to clarify my situation, I went to America straight from finishing my A-levels and attended McNeese State University, Louisiana; a mid-major university with just under 10,000 students.  I am currently at East Carolina University, North Carolina, waiting to complete the final semester of my masters which will see the culmination of almost five years spent on foreign soil. It is a relatively large university of an almost 30,000 student population, and somewhat of a renowned party place – voted number five in Playboy’s top party universities in America, 2010.

Admittedly, I didn’t have the luxury of being recruited like many of the other athletes who attend the States and had to learn about the process on my own accord. After a big improvement my first year, I had a turbulently mediocre subsequent two and a half years.  As a result, I opted to graduate early and save my eligibility to see if I could get a masters degree out of America, as well as aiming to try to end my stint on a positive note. Eventually, after being basically offered little to no scholarship by most of the universities I contacted, and a few opportunities that fell through at the eleventh hour, I ended up on the East Coast where things have gone immeasurably better.

Make the right choice, not the easiest choice

As a reiteration of what a few other people have advised on the site already, research, research and research some more your potential options to see if they if they are a fit for what you are looking for. I can openly say I didn’t do this. To be fair, I didn’t have many options as I was finishing school with some unremarkable times that would not have made the top universities take a second glance. In fact, I was clueless enough to email Vin Lananna, Oregon’s head coach, to ask if a four-year-old 3k PB of around nine minutes was enough for a scholarship. In fairness to him, he took the time to reply and informed me of how naïve I was.

After taking the only real opportunity open to me, I was told that I was part of the new generation of runners to try and restart the programme at McNeese and, in my first year, I went out with a bunch of Irish athletes, and in fact a sub-1.52 British runner who was a teammate of mine from Northern Ireland, which all helped in the settling-in process. However, there wasn’t the success that the likes of Butler, Tulsa and Florida State have seen with their recruits from the British Isles, and it ended up with many people leaving for various reasons and paralleling more to Roy Evans’ Norwegian influx than the classy Dutch inflow of Van Gaal’s Barca.

Finally, be careful not to totally accept everything the coach tells you as scripture. For instance, I was sold on such overly elaborate statements as being only a 40-minute drive to the Gulf of Mexico, as well as having round-the-clock medical care. This, in fact, more often than not, presented itself as an at times unreliable, monthly rub-down from a former athlete who was willing to take time from his busy work and family schedule because the university-employed “athletic trainers” were not willing to do so.

Despite this, as Michael Stipe said, I was looking for answers from The Great Beyond and the above solidified my interest enough to defer my sports science offer from Loughborough and pack my bags to head to the Deep South.

 

The Transfer Process

The red tape that you will encounter in the NCAA system can be as frustrating as it is inevitable. No more so is this the case than when trying to transfer from one university to another. Much like in professional football, you’re not allowed to speak to coaches of other universities over transferring without the permission of your current university as it is seen as a NCAA offense. In order to get this official approval, you must first be granted a release.

There are two types of a release: a full release, that discharges you entirely from the programme, and as a result, you are no longer bound to your scholarship and cannot compete for the university so may speak to whoever you wish. The second, a release to contact, gives you the freedom to speak to other coaches but entitles you to still compete for your current institution. The latter was what I was allowed in my final semester.

On reflection, I went about the process in entirely the wrong way. I first looked to transfer before completing my undergrad, and instead of being honest with my then coach, I tried to utilize social media to try and contact runners of other universities and get them to ask their coach if he would be interested in offering me a scholarship. However, I was trying to sell a product which was 2 years out of form, through avenues more akin to the Christian Ziege tapping-up scandal – with a far less effective left foot. Somewhat unsurprisingly, my coach at McNeese found out and I was subjected to a two-hour rendition of Sir Alex’s famous ‘hair-dryer treatment’, much to the amusement of nearby listeners. As a result, we agreed I’d graduate and then look to see what options I had afterwards with the eligibility I had left.

Relocation, Relocation, Relocation

The location and climate of your potential university is something that should be at the forefront of your mind. I loved the hot weather in Louisiana; however, after moving to North Carolina – arguably, one of the best climates for training in the US – I realised how much the oppressive heat and humidity took out of me and how I was now able to train consistently and shake off the “No-show Neil” nickname I had garnered at McNeese.

In fact, it’s quite easy to underestimate the extremes of weather that are present in America, which is obviously determined by where you are situated. As an example, I almost went to a university in Chicago, which is home to such cold seasons that you’re almost guaranteed to be tallying your winter miles on a treadmill for a couple of months of the year. Moreover, if you’re in the South, I can assure you that you will to be getting up in the early hours to put in the miles to avoid the heat and humidity as best possible. However, many people have successfully coped with the demands the weather has placed upon them and often preferences can come down to the terrain and whether there are trails and hills etc. to exploit in nearby areas.  Just because it is a big university, this does not guarantee copious areas to train. For instance, a teammate of mine went to the University of Tennessee, and he was made to travel 90mins every weekend just to get to a suitable area to run. You have to contrast the social excitement of living in a big city to the practicality it has for running.

Adapting To the Customs and Peculiarities

If you’ve been fortunate enough to see the TV show Swamp People, shot in Louisiana, you will already appreciate the cultural change I had to go through. However, it is often the smaller things that strike you most. If you’re a person who is fond of home comforts then I’d think strongly about whether the US is for you. Whether it’s the interminable adverts between sporting events, people walking around in public in their pyjamas and even the redundancy of a knife to complement your dinner, it can all accumulate to it weighing heavy on your heart and making you want to go home…or refuse to get on your flight which has been known to be the case.

Without a doubt, the magnitude of the university sporting structure, as a whole, is something that is hard to grasp without firsthand experience. From middle-aged men proudly donning paraphernalia of their alma mater, to families camping out two days before an American football game – so they can ‘tailgate’ and show their support – university sports are ingrained into everyday life and allow for a far more tangible and long-lasting relationship than a professional sports team to most Americans.

The Ups and Downs

Athletically, there were many disappointments for me. I came from a training set-up that was very much focused on racing well and leaning on the side of caution with regards training volume; so I really wasn’t used to racing poorly. I have never had quite so many complete and utter nightmares as I have in America – something that does, however, seem ubiquitous across many of the Brits who attend. In addition, being guilt tripped on these poor performances due to having had a recent night out, as if it was tantamount to treason, only compounded the fact.

Regardless, one particular moment of personal disaster included a two-day trip to Stanford, California, to fail to break 4mins for 1500m on money that was donated to pay for my expenses; later this was asked to be returned due to my poor performance. Another example of the topsy-turvy experience that I presided over involved a disastrous, almost 30minute clocking for 8k cross country this past season, and within six months, I was able to post a significant PB and fairly respectable time over 3k indoors for someone of my ability.

Advice

To surmise, America, for me, has encompassed a myriad of many lows, and occasional highs. However, I have stuck it out for almost five years and the recollection of these memories has been humorous, cathartic and hopefully helpful in comparison to the strew of contemporary, narcissistic running blogs.

There are without doubt pros and cons for opting for the NCAA system. From my personal experience, if I could do something drastically different, it would have been to complete my undergrad in Britain and then look to America for my masters; thus, being better positioned to choose a university that best suited my needs, as well as having a British degree to fall back upon.

As a middle-distance runner, the opportunities that America offers for fast, paced races on the lower-end of the distance spectrum is nothing spectacular and not anything that can’t be found at a BMC or somewhere in Europe – bar the impressive NCAA 800m final this year.  On the other hand, if you’re looking for races with seemingly infinite depth in the 5k and 10k, as well as incredibly competitive cross country fields, it’s a must to give yourself the best chance to progress. Moreover, if you’re looking to run a fast time indoors, the facilities (short tracks) and opportunities are incomparable to what is offered in Britain.

On reflection, the university you opt for, much like the system itself, is going to be what you make of it. If getting gear thrown at you and immersing yourself in ‘school spirit’ is high on your agenda, then obviously America is for you. Personally, I felt these novelties wore off and being confident and having more control in my training (and social life) was much more important. Unfortunately, as you’re essentially contractually obligated to participate in the training methods of the coach, you can be afforded little leeway or input. However, this is just my own opinion, derived from my own experience which has been a lot less successful than many of the past and more current athletes who have  elected to go the States. It can be a great place, but make sure you choose wisely.

 

Watch more video of 2011 Alex Wilson Invitational on flotrack.org

Comments are closed.