Brooke Feldmeier receives her silver medal at the SEC indoor meet. (photo by Joshua McCoy)
March 31, 2015
By Sean Cartell, SECSports.com
Brian O'Neal thought something must be wrong with his stopwatch.
The third-year Ole Miss head track and field coach who has spent his entire career as a student-athlete and coach within the Southeastern Conference was holding a time trial in the Manning Center in Oxford for his multi-event athletes this past December.
One of those student-athletes was freshman Brooke Feldmeier, a two-time Washington state heptathlon champion who had been recruited by many of the top programs in the country. Over a course just shy of 600 meters, Feldmeier covered the distance in one minute, 27 seconds.
"That was a really good mark for anybody, much less a multi-eventer," O'Neal said.
That Feldmeier had the opportunity to clock a blazing 600-meter run time was completely by chance.
"Because of our exam schedules, it eliminated the possibility of competing in the multi-events at the Birmingham Southern Invitational," O'Neal said. "In its place, we ran a time trial and all of our multi-eventers did the hurdles and came back running a hard 600. Had that not happened, I don't know if Brooke would be running the 800 now."
The unintended transition from a multi-event athlete to one of the SEC's top 800-meter runners in the period of just a few short months is just one of many fortuitous occurrences that have helped pave the path in Feldmeier's success in the sport of track and field.
Feldmeier was one of the top high school multi-event athletes in the country leading up to her spring 2014 graduation. Awarded the honor of Best Female Athlete at Tumwater High School in Olympia, Wash., Feldmeier was nationally ranked in the 400m and heptathlon during her high school career and had posted a pair of top-three heptathlon finishes at the USATF Junior Olympics as a prep.
Feldmeier, who also played basketball at Tumwater, was a baseball player growing up. The speed she demonstrated on the base paths led her to try track and field.
"At the end of baseball, we would do a base race and I would always beat the guys," Feldmeier said. "My mom said that I must be fast, so I started doing track meets. I was doing multi-events when I was younger and then started running the 400m in middle school and doing a variety of other events."
It was her success as a multi-event athlete that caught the eye of Ole Miss assistant coach Greg Stringer who, in his seventh season with the Rebels has coached, among others, seven-time SEC champion jumper Ricky Robertson.
"Coach Stringer, who works with the multi-eventers, brought her up in a recruiting meeting," O'Neal said. "He said she had the marks he looks for in multi-eventers, but also was a sprinter and a hurdler, and he wanted my evaluation of her. I couldn't do that without a home visit. We weren't guaranteed an official visit because she had already done four of her five."
O'Neal headed to the Pacific Northwest not knowing that dozens of colleges had already visited the Feldmeier home looking to bring the highly touted athlete to their campus.
"According to her and her mom, I was the 39th home visit," O'Neal said. "There were a lot of people who had a shot at her before us. Our assistants typically handle the recruiting for us, but I like to go and see the top high school athletes. Brooke was one that we had decided we were going to go and make a concerted push for."
Before O'Neal, 38 coaches had come and gone from Feldmeier's house without knowing whether they would be fortunate enough to sign her to their programs. The decision didn't take long after that.
"I thought it was going to be a really difficult decision to decide on a school," Feldmeier said. "Coach O'Neal came to my house and I was pretty much set on Ole Miss."
As the defending state heptathlon champion and a top-10 finisher at the 2013 USATF Junior National Championships, Feldmeier entered her senior season of high school looking to close her prep career on a high note. Things, as has seemingly been a trend, didn't turn out quite as planned.
"My senior year, I had trained really hard in the offseason and had really wanted to come back strong," Feldmeier said. "The second day of practice, I tore my hamstring. I was still trying to battle and had a fine season, but it was not as good as I wanted. In the summer, my hamstring was still bothering me and I wasn't able to train."
In transit to Oxford to begin her career as a collegiate student-athlete, Feldmeier received an unexpected phone call. It was her doctor from Olympia, informing her that she had been diagnosed with mononucleosis, which further hampered her ability to train once she got to Ole Miss.
"She had mono to begin, so she missed the first four to six weeks of training," O'Neal said. "When she started back, we didn't spoon feed her. We just started her right where the rest of the group was and she wasn't missing a beat.
"We knew she was talented when we brought her in," he continued. "Having not worked out in the summer, having mono and then coming in and being able to run at the levels at which she was, I immediately knew we had somebody special."
The early workouts were difficult for Feldmeier, but she instantly embraced the challenge.
"I've never worked so hard in my life," Feldmeier said. "Workouts I thought in high school were difficult are an easy day for me now. Coach O'Neal has worked with us not only physically, but also mentally. He teaches us to have the right mindset at practice and teaches us how to be positive."
Feldmeier returned home to Washington this past December with a plan to become an 800-meter runner for the first time in her career. She had never before run an open 800 meter race.
"After that workout in December, Brooke and I had a conversation about her transition over the Christmas holidays," O'Neal said. "I sent her home with workouts and told her that if she was able to handle those with ease, then we would begin to transition her into running the 800."
At the team's 2015 opener - the Gene Edmonds Invitational in West Lafayette, Ind. - Feldmeier won the 600-meter run in a school-record time of 1:28.42. Her time bested the previous school record of 1:29.63 set in 2011 by Sofie Persson, who was a multi-time All-American at Ole Miss and finished third in the 800m at the 2011 NCAA Indoor Championships.
"My thoughts after that first meet were that my eyes were showing me that she was able to duplicate in meets what I had been seeing in practice," O'Neal said. "The progression now was that we wanted her to compete in her first 800 and have success her first time out. We had her run the 400 at the Auburn Invitational and she wouldn't run the 800 until the meet at Vanderbilt."
At the Vanderbilt Indoor Invitational in late January, Feldmeier clocked what was then the No. 1 time in the nation in the 800m and move herself into second place on the school's all-time 800m list (2:05.27) behind Persson.
"The stars began to align from that point on," O'Neal said. "Practice and all of the workouts she had been doing were beginning to all come together."
Transitioning to a new event isn't always something that elite-level athletes embrace, having spent much of their youth careers honing skills for a particular event or set of events.
That wasn't the case with Feldmeier.
"Brooke, to me, is someone who likes to accept challenges," O'Neal said. "The greater the challenge, the bigger the motivation for her to do it."
At the SEC Indoor Championships in Lexington, Ky., in late February, Feldmeier broke Persson's school-record in the 800m and finished as the SEC runner-up in a time of 2:04.34. In sixth place entering the final lap of the race, Feldmeier impressively surged to the front of the pack to finish second overall.
The coaches of the SEC voted Feldmeier the SEC Women's Freshman Athlete of the Year.
"It was really, really exciting and I tried to just go out there and have fun," she said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself and I'm really hard on myself. Going to those big meets give me a lot of experience that I need."
Feldmeier capped her inaugural indoor campaign with an eighth-place and All-America finish at the NCAA Indoor Championships. During the semifinal round, she lowered her school-record time to 2:04.30 and was one of only 13 freshmen women at the NCAA Indoor Championships to place in the top-eight of an individual event.
"I'm honestly really happy to have become an 800m runner," Feldmeier said. "It was totally unplanned and I found out right before Christmas break, but I really enjoy it. It's an event that I'm still really new to and each race I am learning something."
Despite all of the twists and turns, the transition to college was a smooth one for the driven Feldmeier. An integrated marketing communications major with a business administration minor, Feldmeier was also a 4.0 student during her first semester at Ole Miss.
"I was expecting a lot harder of a transition, but it has gone really well," Feldmeier said. "We have so much support down here both with athletics and in the classroom. That has made the transition extremely easy."
Creating a championship culture and competing for SEC and NCAA Championships has been a goal from day one for O'Neal, a 1993 Ole Miss graduate and a four-year letterwinner for the Rebels.
"You have to have stars to be able to compete with the upper echelon in this league," O'Neal said. "Brooke is one of our stars and we have to put more people together with her and the rest of our young ladies. For us to win here as a team, we have to have a collection of young ladies who believe in themselves and their coaching and training to collectively come together for the group to achieve something special."
Feldmeier has exemplified the type of student-athlete around which O'Neal is building his program.
"Brooke has believed in her coaches and her training, and she definitely believes in herself," O'Neal said. "She has always believed that she could be good at whatever event that we put her in."
Feldmeier is confident that the culture of the Ole Miss program and the student-athletes coming to Oxford to compete in track and field will translate into titles and trophies.
"I think it literally takes a couple of people to come to a school and show their work-ethic and how determined they are, then it easily translates to the rest of the team," she said. "Someone has to set the standard and it needs to be set high."