Wallace carves a path to success
Senior Brittany Wallace was one of a handful of Cougars who took center stage Saturday at the New Balance Track & Field Center at the Armory in New York City during the first American Indoor Conference championships.
Wallace won both the 200-meter and 400-meter events, breaking her own school record in the latter with a time of 52.93. Competing despite a short rest time between events, she helped the UH women’s team place third overall and moved herself into No. 19 in the NCAA 400-meter rankings.
Her story, intertwined with failure and success both academically and athletically, is more about her decision to trump destiny than the awards she received on the collegiate level. However, she said awards do not define her; rather, they are a result of who she has become, due largely in part to three years of hard work and the emotional, physical and mental growth that has been cultivated by the coaching staff’s rigid guidance and stringent standards.
“Though she has always been academically sound, Brittany endured quite a bit of struggle during her first three years — from injuries to acclimating to the expectations we have for all of our athletes and adapting to our training style — but what you are seeing now is her maturation,” said head coach Leroy Burrell. “In the past, if we had asked her to compete in back-to-back events, mentally it would have been difficult for her, even though we knew she was physically capable. Now she is the whole package, very mature and talented.”
In order to compete, she has adhered to the minimum 3.0 GPA standard Burrell enforces for every athlete. The University requirement is 2.5. The average for the 17 UH sports is 2.95.
“As an athletics coach, if you don’t impress the importance of education, you are doing your athletes a disservice,” Burrell said. “We expect them to come in and put in upwards of four hours of training in addition to numerous hours of study time. It’s really easy for all the work they put into athletics to overshadow the academic side, so balance is important.”
Her maturation as an athlete has made her a threat to the 400-meter crown, signaling her ascension to role model and making her a polarizing figure in the eyes of student athletes wishing to follow in her footsteps, she said. The role of hero or heroine, one that Wallace, Burrell and freshman Cameron Burrell share, is formed from a special bond. They are all from in or near Darby, Penn. — a city known for its high crime and its ability to trap young minority students in a cycle of ignorance and poverty.
“People don’t leave Darby,” Wallace said.
“Every time I go back, I see people that I graduated with, stuck in the same routine, not doing anything with their lives. I do see myself as a role model for young African-American girls, especially those from my neighborhood. When I do go home, it makes me really happy when they come up to me and tell me that I’m the reason that I continue to run track and haven’t given up.”
African-Americans and Hispanics in Pennsylvania, especially ones from the Darby area, have far lower graduation rates compared to other races and are far less prepared for college in comparison to other states like Texas. Those races’ graduation rates in Pennsylvania are at least 22 percent lower that the state average while being a mere six percent away in Texas. Despite attending Penn Wood Senior High School, which is currently unranked by U.S. News and boasts only 27 and 23 percent of its student body proficient in reading and mathematics, respectively, Wallace graduated near the top of her class with a 3.9 GPA.
“My parents always made sure that education came first,” Wallace said. “If my grades weren’t good, then I didn’t run, end of story. The motivation to never be complacent came from them.”
Wallace’s drive seems never-ending; she graduated in the top 20 percent of her class, was a member of the University’s National Honor Society and is currently taking post-baccalaureate classes in preparation for a master’s degree in sports administration.
In her collegiate career, she has outpaced expectations and raised more than a couple of eyebrows, none more notable than resident Olympian-turned-volunteer-coach Carl Lewis.
Lewis noted that the current generation, the “Facebook generation,” has a tendency to want instant success and not be willing to sacrifice for the things they want.
“There was a very short time in between her events, but she ran tough and didn’t whine or complain,” Lewis said. “Other people simply live to exist, but people like Brittany actually succeed.”