Franklin & Marshall freshman Rachel Wylie, a State College grad, will compete in the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA Division III Track & Field Championships beginning Thursday in Geneva, Ohio.
She will do so because she has run the race faster than all but a handful of women throughout the country this spring — faster than any in the last 31 years at the Lancaster-based school.
Also because she has managed to clear some unseen hurdles. She overcame the adjustment to college that every freshman faces, and she fought through a back injury that slowed her down in the outdoor season.
Despite those obstacles, Wylie still became the first F&M freshman in seven years to reach NCAAs. Sheena Crawley, a four-time All-American middle-distance runner, was the last to do so.
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“She belongs here,” Diplomats coach Carl Schnabel said. “This is not a surprise.”
Wylie first broke the school record of 1 minute, 4.21 seconds in her event, which had stood since 1986, when she ran 1:04.05 on April 29. She broke it again when she ran 1:04 in the preliminaries of the Centennial Conference Outdoor Championships on May 6, then once more the next day, when she ran 1:02.22 while winning the finals.
That gave her the 19th-fastest seed time for nationals. She runs in the prelims Thursday at the SPIRE Institute in Geneva, in hopes of advancing to Saturday’s finals. She will earn All-America honors if she finishes in the top 8.
“Honestly, I’m just happy to be here,” she said Tuesday. “I think I just want to run a clean race and do the best that I can.”
She has a feel for big meets like this, having competed in districts and states in high school. She understands that there is little separation among the top competitors — the qualifying times of the 22 entrants are separated by fewer than three seconds, those of the bottom 18 by fewer than two.
“Whatever place I get,” she said, “I’m going to be happy, because I’m here.”
She comes from a family of athletes. Her dad, Richard, played soccer at Ithaca. Her mom, DeeAnn, ran track at Whitworth College. And her sister Sarah, 2 years older, competed alongside her in the hurdles at State College.
Rachel happily followed along. In an effort to be at her best, she told State College’s student newspaper in February 2016, she watched what she ate and was careful to get enough rest. That resulted in a career that saw her win districts three times in the 100 hurdles and twice in the 300 hurdles, the 1,600 relay and the 400 relay. She also finished fourth in the 300 hurdles and sixth in the 400 relay at states her senior year.
She picked F&M over Penn State, Syracuse, William & Mary, Bucknell and Ithaca for many reasons, among them its proximity not only to home but to Philadelphia, some 90 minutes east.
“There’s always something to do,” she said.
Despite transitioning to college during the indoor season, she still broke a 28-year-old school record in the 55-meter hurdles, running 9.09, but nonetheless felt she needed guidance from her family and coaches — not to mention some teammates — to stay focused.
“It’s hard to hang out with friends and keep up with classes and keep up with track — to get any sleep,” she said. “Then you’ve got the dining hall with desserts all over the place. It’s hard to keep yourself in check.”
Schnabel, in his 13th year, has seen talented kids fall into that trap before. But Wylie impressed him.
“To have a kid not act 18 is really exciting,” he said, “because we’re all 18 once and that goes really quickly, and you can really waste those years if you’re not doing the right things.”
The back injury proved to be another stumbling block. The trainers never pinpointed the exact problem, Wylie said, but it left her unable to hurdle and do any sprint training for the better part of a month.
She did some biking. She performed some distance work. She alternately applied ice and heat.
Finally, she said, “I had to train through it a little bit, because to get to this point, you have to compete.”
At the Centennial Conference meet she not only won the hurdles but was part of the victorious 400 relay. She also ran a leg on the 1,600 relay, which finished third.
She prepped for nationals by again flirting with the school record in the 400 hurdles at last week’s ECAC Championships, running 1:02.49 while winning the event.
And now there are more hurdles to navigate. She’s used to that by now.