Athlete Feature 23 - David Proctor - USA Athletics Scholarships

Athlete Feature 23 – David Proctor


David Proctor was Boston’s first sub-4 miler, and held the school record at 3:59.14, which was broken by fellow Brit Rich Peters last year. He talks openly and honestly about his ups, and his downs, during his eventful stint in the NCAA. A fantastic read where he outlines some salient issues that occur within the NCAA behemoth.

David’s Powerof10 profile can be found here. He is currently based in Manchester and trains with Norman Poole’s elite distance group, and brother Matt currently studies at Butler University, IN.

tbUSA – You attended Boston University from 2004 through 2009.  Did you do much research into your decision?  Were there any other schools on the radar?

DP – I actually spent most of my schooldays dreaming of a place at Loughborough!  All my subject choices in school were focused on getting into Loughborough and that’s where I always assumed I’d go.  Then, about a year before I was due to take my final A-Levels, I received a letter of interest from the coaching staff at Iowa State University.  To this day, I’m still unsure as to how they had my details or where they heard about me.  However, I initially rejected the idea of going to America for university because I was so set on Loughborough, plus after researching ISU and its surroundings, living 30 miles from any sort of civilization wasn’t very appealing to me. But, after having so many people tell me that it could be the greatest opportunity of my life, I decided to keep my options open and take the SATs anyway, just in case.  That was the following December, and as soon as I’d taken the test, and my name was in the system, I started receiving letters of interest from all over the US – Louisiana State, Towson, Tulane, Florida State, just to name a few.  I even received an offer from the University of Monaco!  Yes, the one in the French Riviera, and yes, I was confused too…!  Anyway, I didn’t do any research into the top Track schools, since I didn’t really understand how big the NCAA was until I got there.  I had my own ideas of what I wanted in a university, and in the end, it came down to Boston University, New York University and the University of Miami (FL).  Once I understood about Divisions, NYU (DIII) was cut from the list, obviously, even though honestly (and secretly), I would have killed to have lived in New York for 5 years!  As for Miami, the reason I decided against going there was all down to the TV show, CSI:Miami.  I saw an episode of it where a group of university students were all shot dead by some drug-dealing Cuban, and I figured things would be much safer in peaceful, liberal New England. OK, so I’m only half serious, but the reputation of the city and the way of life was certainly an influencing factor.

tbUSA – What attracted you to Boston?  The facilities, the big city life, or the academics?

DP – I knew from the start that I wanted to stay on the East Coast.  Once I warmed to the idea of moving so far away from home, I figured that the East Coast was the perfect compromise because it was the “closest”.  Hence the reason for my final Top 3.  I also knew that it needed to be a major city.  I’ve always been a “city-kid”, and living in the corn-fields of Iowa was never even an option, no matter how good the education or the Track programme.  Aside from that, I wanted a school that had decent school records (showing a trend for producing top-level athletes), a nationally recognised coach (Bruce Lehane, student of Bill Squires, coach to Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar), great facilities (see below), great competition (Division 1), as well as the other (sometimes forgotten) criteria for a good education while I was there.  I heard that BU often sends its foreign-exchange students to Oxford University, and had great links with Harvard University across the river in Boston, so I like to tell myself that my education was as good as any Ox-Bridge or Harvard student.  The education I received there was as important to me as the Track programme, so although some people told me there were much better Track schools out there, I wanted to be able to be proud of the academic side as much as the athletic side.  Spending my 5th and final year doing most of my clinical placements at Harvard Medical School really proved to me that my decision was the right one.  I doubt that I’d ever have had the opportunity to study at a $50,000-a-year establishment otherwise !

tbUSA – During your spell in Boston, you broke 4:00 for the mile (school record), as well as 1:49, in 2007, both on your home track.  It must have been great to have such a great facility on your doorstep particularly in the cold North-west winter months?

DP – The BU Track & Tennis Centre (or the TTC as we called it) was by far the best indoor facility on the East Coast, and some even argued it was the best track in the nation.  It was built on boards which give it a sort of energy-returning quality, and although people argued it must have been a short track, it was measured multiple times per year and has been authorized over and over by the IAAF.  It was a great track to train on obviously, and as you say, was very welcome when the Nor’easters blew in.  Not that running for an hour round the outside lane of an indoor running track was all that stimulating, but at least we didn’t have to deal with the potential injuries that running through -30ºC on ice might bring!  It was always nice to be able to race on the same track we trained on day-in-day-out too, and because our track was so fantastic, almost every indoor meet we had was there, including our big invitationals, the conference meet, the New England champs and even the IC4As.  The only meet we didn’t run there in a season was the NCAA meet, and there were many rumours flying round that the only reason we didn’t have Nationals as well, was because we didn’t have enough seating around the track.  We still managed to fit around 2,500 spectators in, but because there were no seats along the back-straight, the TTC wasn’t even eligible for the NCAA meet. Big shame in my opinion.

tbUSA – Your 3:59.14 mile qualified for the NCAA champs where you bowed out in the semi final.  Can you explain the level of competition there and how it differed from Conference meets or regular season invitational meets?

DP – “Bowed out in the semi-final”… Hmm, I like to think of it as my “11th place finish”!  Plus I was only something like 0.05 away from making the top 10 and the Final, but results are results and that’s how it played out.  Gutted at the time, but can laugh about it now.  The thing I remember most about that race was the amount of pressure I felt before the gun even went off!  I remember the build up to the championships was all about the “showdown” between myself and Leo Manzano of Texas and how I was going to cause a “massive upset” etc etc.  Obviously, you try to block all that out and just run your own race as best you can, but when you’re competing for a school that is giving you $50K a year to represent them, you really feel the need to perform and prove that you’re worth the money.  Not only that, but I was the only representative from BU there and the school newspaper made a massive deal about how I was going to be National Champion and run sub-4 again and perhaps it all got a bit too much.  After all, I’d never been to these championships before, and the closest I’d ever come to such a high-pressure event was the AAA U20 Indoor Championships in 2004.  Back then though, I was most certainly the underdog, and was able to just run my race and perform well.  I think when I was stood on the start-line for my NCAA prelim, and the cameraman ran over and shoved a camera in my face, had me up on the big screen and the commentator reeling off statistics about my season, that may have been the moment I felt myself tighten up and really just want the ground to open up beneath me… That being said, there was a part of me that was absolutely LOVING the attention and the acclaim.  It was fantastic feeling like a celebrity which was something that never really happens in the smaller meets.  I guess that meet was the very first time I ever felt the real pressure of elite level competition, and although it ended with a very embarrassing “bow-out in the semi-final”, I have to say I’m a much better athlete now because of the experience.  (In my defence, I spent the whole race in lane 3 after getting pushed out of the pack, and still managed to run 4:03 or something, so my coach and I spent the rest of the season convincing ourselves that if I’d managed to stay in lane 1, I’d have probably run 3:56 and won the whole thing !  Who knows…?!)

tbUSA – Was that your best moment as a BU student-athlete ?  If not, what was?  {It needn’t be one individual meet, can be anything, even non athletics related}

DP – Representing BU at the NCAAs was obviously a very proud moment for me, but given the pressure and embarrassment I suffered in front of thousands of people, I wouldn’t class it as my greatest moment.  I’m sure most runners have experienced those times in Track & Field where everything you touch turns to gold, and you can’t put a foot wrong.  In the lead-up to the 2007 Indoor NCAAs, that was exactly how my season went, and the America East conference champs that year will always stand out as the “perfect” meet for me.  By the end of the weekend, I’d won 4 gold medals, broken 2 championship records and been named MVP / Outstanding Athlete of the championships.  After running sub-4 at the Terrier Invitational in January, I think my coach decided that I was capable of anything, and decided to push me hard at the conference meet in order to score as many points as possible.  I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea, but obviously, it was nice to have someone show so much faith in me, plus my confidence was sky-high, so why not ??  I started by running the first leg of the DMR on the first day, and ran away from the field to run 2:55 for 1200.  Our last leg guy ran a 4:04 split and we destroyed the conference record.  The next day was obviously a bit more stressful, but was much more magical.  Starting with the Mile, I wanted to take it as easy as possible, but I still needed to run 4:02 (a conference record at the time) to beat the other guys, such was the quality of the conference at the time.  Next up was the 800m, and the most unbelievable thing about this story for me, was that this race was less than 20 mins after the Mile !  Not only did I win, but I ran sub-1:50 for the first time ever too !  I doubt I’ll ever understand how I pulled that off !!  The icing-on-the-cake was another win in the 4x800m, with another sub-1:50 split to beat our big rivals, Albany.  The relays are obviously special because you get to share the glory with the guys you train with every day, and that often means more to me than my own victories.  Everything played out perfectly and I was invincible!  Definitely the greatest day of athletics I’ve ever experienced.  Away from the track, I have to say that the day I graduated was very significant for me.  I know it sounds trivial, but I spent most of my freshman year under the threat of failing all my classes and being sent home, such was the level of the academics at BU (and maybe my own complacency).  I wasn’t sure how to handle the academic workload in addition to the training, and I was never sure that I would graduate at all, so the day I actually did was pretty special to me, and gave me something to be seriously proud of outside of the sport.  In fact, at home, my degree is still displayed in a much more prominent place than any of my track medals.

tbUSA – Is there anything during your time that you hadn’t given thought to during the recruiting process or did your time as a Terrier meet your expectations?

DP – The pressure to perform was something I couldn’t ever have prepared for, although honestly, most of it came from my myself.  The NCAA is such a massive organization, and university sports are worth so much money, that I always felt the pressure to perform and be at my best.  If you’re injured and not competing, you feel like a let-down.  If you finish 2ndwhen everyone knows you should have won, you feel like a failure.  And this pressure to perform can lead to you doing anything in your power to avoid being a let-down or a failure.  The funny thing is though, in a sport like Track & Field, coaches and teammates know that nobody is ever perfect, nobody is capable of winning every time, and injuries and illnesses happen.  Personally, I spent a large proportion of my early years trying to stay in control of everything so that I couldn’t ever be accused of not doing everything I could to perform at my best.  I even took it to the extreme and tried to control my body weight and keep myself at “race-weight” so as not to perform badly.  Diet and nutrition was

never something I’d ever paid attention to previously, so to suddenly focus so strongly on it was tough and very mentally draining.  It became clear to me very quickly that “running” was about much more than just running, and this was a very sobering realisation.  It tested my commitment to the sport and dedication to my dreams.  Ultimately, I let the focus on nutrition spiral out of control and I ended up risking my health and my athletic career by taking my need for control way too far.  I attempted to get my weight as low as possible so that, by carrying less mass, I would run faster and therefore always be ready to perform on the big stage for my team.  I allowed the pressure to perform to get to me too much and, ironically, I inhibited myself because of it.  Just to be clear, I never directly felt pressure from coaches or the university to perform – they weren’t like that.  In fact, they were extremely supportive and helpful.  I personally took it upon myself to feel the need to justify the school’s investment in me and be “worth it”.  My fear of being a failure drove me to extreme measures to succeed.  I don’t think anyone could have prepared me for that, but looking back on it now, I’m certainly a stronger person because of it, and I’d do it exactly the same if I had to do it over.

A link to a Runners’ World article on the above issue can be found here.

tbUSA – What did you study whilst in Boston?

DP – I was a member of BU’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and initially started out on a Human Physiology course.  After a disastrous first year however, I made the switch to Health Sciences, mainly to avoid the Physics and Statistics requirement in Human Phys !  However, it ended up working out perfectly, because I was able to tailor the Health Sciences degree to my own interests and even ended up earning 2 minors ! One in Human Nutrition Science and one in Exercise Physiology.  After I graduated in 2008 and agreed to stay around for a 5th year of competition, I started an MSc degree in Cardiovascular Sciences which ultimately led to my placements at Harvard.  Looking back on it now, it would have maybe been an easier ride if I’d taken something less challenging, but the doors it has opened up for me since returning home make it all worth it.  Health-related careers are (hopefully) recession-proof, given that people still get sick even when the economy is down !

tbUSA – Can you explain the culture of the north-east USA and particularly Massachusetts?  It has a large Irish community so would it be safe to say it’s as British/Irish an environment as you’re likely to get in America?

DP – Funnily enough, I always said to people that Boston was the most English-feeling city I’d been to in the US.  When you compare it to the likes of New York or Los Angeles, obviously, it’s much closer to the way of life I’d always experienced in Manchester.  I like to think that Boston has all the good qualities of a British city, without any of the bad ones, although obviously as with any city, it has its own shortcomings.  As a major educational and medical centre in the US, with something like 85 educational establishments in the Greater Boston area, it was always a very “young” city and the liberal attitudes of the people there make it a very welcoming place for foreigners.  I believe Boston was one of the very first cities to be founded when the Europeans arrived in the US, and their “pilgrim” influence is obvious everywhere you go.  Coming from Manchester, with such a strong sporting heritage, it was nice to be in a city with an equally important sporting way of life too, although learning to love baseball, basketball, “football” and ice-hockey was a challenge.  Nonetheless, being in Boston for 2 World Series wins and 2 Super Bowl appearances was pretty exciting.  The Irish contingent in Boston was always very present too and even if people weren’t always directly from Ireland, there were a lot of people who identified as being “part-Irish”, and a lot of resident Bostonians had Irish-sounding names!  Although, in terms of Track schools, Providence always seemed to have the strongest Irish connection.

After 5 years there, Boston easily became a home-away-from-home, and I still enjoy heading back there whenever I get the chance.  Perhaps it was the very European feel of the city itself, but I think the people there make Boston what it is, rather than the actual architecture or design.  I always wondered whether the southern cities were anything like cities at home, but because of the culture differences and often strong republican politics, cities like Raleigh/Durham and Atlanta made me feel very out-of-place at times.  Fantastic places to visit, but not somewhere I’d be happy living.  I’ve heard that Austin, TX is supposed to be one of the most welcoming cities for Brits as its way of life is very similar to Boston (?).  Unfortunately, I never made it down there so my vote still lies with Boston.

tbUSA – Do you feel coming straight out as an undergraduate suited you or do you feel you would have got more from the experience as a post-graduate student ?

DP – I genuinely believe that moving to America as an undergraduate was the best decision for me.  Looking back now, there are so many things about the whole experience that were for the best, and seeing my life as it is now, I certainly wouldn’t change it for anything.  When I first moved out there, I actually HATED it.  I felt like a foreigner.  I felt unwelcome.  I missed home given that I’d never been away from my family before.  It was such a difficult transition, and in many ways, perhaps this is why I struggled so much academically in my first year.  It took a while to get used to the environment and the culture, and even make friends and feel like a part of the team.  I realise now that this experience forced me to grow up.  I had to mature and become independent much quicker than I probably would have by staying in the UK.  I truly believe that I became the man I am today by being thrown in at the deep end, and although I spent a few nights missing home and crying myself to sleep early on, by the end of my first year, it was already turning into the most incredible experience of my life.  Therefore, by the end of year 5, I can honestly say that my life had been changed forever and I was a completely different person.  “Different”, as in “better”.  Would I have experienced such a positive change in my life had I gone out there in my early 20s instead ?  Probably not.  Plus, would I have had such profound development in only 2 years of post-grad ?  Again, probably not.  Athletically, the same could be said.  Would I have improved so much in just 2 short years ?  I didn’t begin hitting my best times until 2007, by which time I was in my 3rd season with the Terriers.  Often with American coaches, they tend to think more long-term than immediate results and I know that I spent the first two years trying to develop my strength and endurance before really starting to see results in my Junior year.  I think that being lucky enough to have 5 years out there really gave me the best chance to become the best athlete I could be, and then provide me with a great foundation to build on when I came home.

tbUSA – Any advice to prospective student-athletes looking at the NCAA ?

DP – Well first of all, anyone who studies in the US is going to have an extremely different experience to anyone else.  For example, spending 5 years in Boston is going to provide a very different experience to someone who, say, spends 2 years in Indianapolis.  Such is the diversity of the US that where you go will most certainly influence the person (and the athlete) that you will become.  I was lucky that Boston was such a great fit for me and my personality in the long run, but unless you know a little bit about the area you will be living in, it could prove to be much more difficult.  Just to give a specific example, don’t go heading out to rural Iowa if you depend on busy city life as much as I do.  Also, don’t expect that just because you were great in the UK / Ireland that you’ll be great in America.  It took me a while to realise that being National Champion in the UK really doesn’t mean anything in the US, and you’ll definitely feel like a small fish in a big pond.  What separates the champions from everyone else in the collegiate system is the willingness to work hard and improve relative to your surroundings.  It takes hard work and a LOT of patience, but if you are able to compete with the best in the US by the end of your time there, you’ll always be able to compete with the rest of the world too.  That’s probably not new news to anyone serious enough to be making the trip over to the US – you already know that it takes a different kind of mentality to succeed in this sport, and that drive will certainly come in handy out there.

I would also recommend not just heading to a university that someone else has been to – if you genuinely want to grow from your experience in the US, choose an establishment that seems to fit you best in every way.  Don’t just head to California because the weather is nice, or to Colorado because it’ll be great altitude training, or to New Mexico because that’s where all the English kids go.  If these places genuinely are a great fit for you, then fantastic, but remember that this isn’t just a long-term training camp.  It’s where you’ll be living for the next few years of your life, and living is exactly what you’ll want to be doing.  It took me a while to realise that the NCAA experience is about MUCH more than just how fast you run while you’re there.  I met some amazing people and saw some amazing sights and experienced some amazing culture.  Choose somewhere that you believe will allow you to grow and mature into a person you love being.  And as an extension of that, at risk of sounding like your dad, choose somewhere that will nurture your academic goals as well as your athletic ones.  It may be that athletics doesn’t work out for you, or that you get a big injury out there, and unless you have goals outside of running, it won’t be a pleasant experience at all.  And anyway, if someone is going to give you a free education worth thousands of dollars, why not take advantage and make it a good one!?  Oh, and best of luck – you’ll definitely need it, but if you’re brave enough to make the trip over there, you’re already more than strong enough to deal with it.

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