Photo: Connor McCourtney
Senior Ari Curtis went from never running the 400-meter hurdles in a collegiate meet to running among the nation’s best at the USA Track and Field Championships in a three-month span during her junior season.
Kevin Henderson, an assistant track and field coach who specifically coaches the hurdlers, said Curtis is a poised, confident athlete when she makes her way up to the starting line.
“She is truly an athlete, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that,” Henderson said. “Watching her, you just see that there is a presence about her. It is really hard for me to describe. It’s just a presence about her when she steps on the track. She’s not timid, she’s not bashful, it’s like, ‘This is my sanctuary, and this is where I get it done.’”
Curtis has set school records in the 400-meter hurdles at 57.89 seconds, in the heptathlon with a score of 4,998 and in the indoor pentathlon with 3,739. She has also been a member of two record-setting relay teams.
Curtis entered Drake as a jumper and a multi-race athlete. The move to the 400-meter hurdles didn’t come until the start of the 2010 outdoor season.
“(Head coach) Natasha (Brown) was really open to the idea of me doing what event I wanted,” Curtis said. “I expressed interest in the 400 hurdles and it worked out.”
Worked out is an understatement. Curtis set a school record the first time she ran the event when she finished with a time of 1:00.00 at last year’s Tom Botts Invitational. She continued to build on that success and shave entire seconds off her time over the course of the season.
“There was a lot of feeling around to find the event I wanted to do,” Curtis said. “Sticking to it and having Kevin as a coach has meant the world. He has done so much that it is hard to quantify. He is an incredible person in my life as a person, not just as a coach. He has everything to do with my success at Drake.”
Henderson contributes the successful transition to her background in the triple jump and running the 800-meter to build stamina, but even he was amazed at the instant success.
“I have run the event for nearly 15 years and never seen anybody transition as quickly as she did in just a year,” Henderson said. “It was remarkable.”
Curtis rode her improving times all the way to the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore., placing 10th with the school-record time of 57.89 seconds. With that performance, she qualified for the 2010 USA Track and Field Championships, which were held in Des Moines.
“She is the epitome of this program in terms of hard work and determination,” Henderson said. “Kind of the underachiever that no one expects to get something done and then gets on the grandstand at the NCAA final. She is always the one that goes to the forefront, and typically those are the type of people that stay in the gym after, out there before, and it makes a good situation for the team.”
Curtis’ teammates are the first people standing in line to agree with Henderson.
“Ari has been a great role model,” sophomore hurdler Sarah Yeager said. “She always pushes us in the workouts and seeing her have so much success coming from how hard she worked last year just made me want to work harder. I think everyone has decided to take after her.”
Unfortunately, the 2011 outdoor season has not been kind to Curtis. At the same meet where the entire 400-meter hurdles story began, she suffered a knee injury while going over the fifth hurdle in the event.
The severity of the knee injury is not yet known and redshirting the rest of the season could be a possibility.
Still, no matter who you talk to, Curtis has already left a lasting impression on the Bulldog track and field program.
“I really hope the legacy is that there is always another level you can reach,” Curtis said. “You don’t have to fit into just what people think you can do because there is always one more step. Small private school doesn’t mean you can’t make a national statement.”