The male and female winners of the 2015 Bowerman award will be announced on Thursday. SPIKES speaks to the high school coaches behind this year's finalists to find out how each precocious talent first began to shine.
Demi Payne, 24, Stephen F. Austin State University
– NCAA outdoor champion
– Collegiate indoor record 4.75m
In addition to her NCAA record and title, Demi Payne won the USA indoor national title and finished third outdoors to make the world championships team (all while juggling track with being a mother). Lee Datesman was the track and field coach at New Braunfels High School in Texas while Payne was a student there. He concedes that Payne, who’s father Bill vaulted for USA at the 1995 World Championships, completed much of her coaching outside of school. Yet he knew early that she had great potential.
“I remember watching her jump and thinking ‘wow, this girl is special’,” he tells SPIKES. “She was so raw. Even as a junior she was still so raw. Obviously the genes were there and the background was there, but still, until you get there and do it yourself it’s a whole different story.”
Datesman’s specialty was not pole vault – it is, after all, still a relatively new event for women to be competing in. Nonetheless he knew he had a special talent on his hands.
“It was just about how confident she was. She was always just pretty sure of herself, a really mentally tough kid,” he adds. “We knew she was going to move on to do fantastic. Now, setting records and making the world team – that’s pretty cool! I can’t say I’m surprised.”
Kendra Harrison, 23, University of Kentucky
– NCAA indoor 60m hurdles champion
– NCAA outdoor 100m hurdles champion
– NCAA outdoor 400m hurdles silver medalist
Versatility is the cornerstone of Kenra Harrison’s success. She is a formidable sprint hurdler – finishing second at the senior national championships and making the semi-finals of the world champs – and can also put in a shift over a full lap of barriers: her best of 54.09 makes her the fifth fastest American collegiate of all time.
Harrison passed under the tutelage of coach Thomas Coughlin while she studied at Clayton High School, in North Carolina. Coughlin recalls a natural-born athlete.
“I was her elementary physical education teacher”, he recalls. “I remember none of the other kids being able to tag her. She set the record in jump roping and after doing a pull ups test, the other kids asked if I could go next. I declined!”
Aside from her all-round sporting ability, Coughlin remembers a quiet, humble child with incredible drive.
“She was an individual and team conference champion in cheerleading, cross country, a standout soccer player and eventually turned her focus to track late in her high school career. Those who knew her and had never even seen her run track knew her drive was rare and her potential was endless.”
Jenna Prandini, 23, University of Oregon
– NCAA indoor long jump champion
– NCAA indoor 200m silver medallist
– NCAA outdoor 100m champion
– NCAA outdoor 200m silver medallist
– NCAA outdoor long jump silver medallist
So much was achieved by Jenna Prandini through her collegiate season that her subsequent success at senior level is made all the more astonishing. She won the national 200m title and progressed to the semi finals at the world championships before scooping 4x100m silver in Beijing.
Such relentless medal winning is nothing new for Prandini, as Greg Friesen, her coach at Clovis High School, California, remembers well.
“Within our feeder schools that come up to the high school she was very well known, and in fact her father was my track coach in high school,” he says. “She was no secret.”
She won multiple state titles across her events, even picking up a state championship in the triple jump. It was in the horizontal jumps that Friesen thought her greater talent lay. “I did not anticipate that she would develop so well as a sprinter,” he admits.
Whatever the event, Prandini’s competitive spirit was evident from the start. “During the competition there were no smiles, no overt friendliness, because she was such a competitor. The most competitive athlete I’ve ever been around.”
But away from the track she remains, to this day, the local kid who could just run real fast.
“She was honoured on campus at a homecoming celebration and the kids were just overwhelmed at seeing a national, international talent come back to high school and hang out with them. From what I see, she thinks of herself as a kid. She doesn’t think she’s anything special, but those around her know she is.”
Marquis Dendy, 23, University of Florida
– NCAA indoor triple jump champion (CR 17.37m)
– NCAA indoor long jump champion
– NCAA outdoor triple jump champion
– NCAA outdoor long jump champion
Marquis Dendy is the latest precocious horizontal jumper to emerge from the University of Florida. He ended the season owning school records in the triple jump both indoor and out, and in the long jump indoors. At the senior national championships he finished third in the triple jump and won gold in the long jump with a huge (though wind-aided) 8.68m to make the world championship teams for both events.
Bill Dubois, who was his coach at Middletown High School, Delaware, says that Dendy’s athletic versatility was not always confined to just the jumps.
“He ran the 100m, the 4x100m, the 200m, the 4x200m, long jump, triple jump, probably could have run a really good quarter [mile, i.e. 400m], probably could have been a good hurdler – he had a lot of range,” he says.
Dubois recalls a “gregarious” kid who was always happy to contribute to the team effort. Dendy ended high school with state records in the long and triple jumps, but it was when he found success on a national level that Dubois began to understand the extent of Dendy’s talent.
“When he was in high school he showed just a tremendous amount of ability. But Delaware is a little state – it’s the second smallest state in the country! And although he competed in our club team outside of high school, you don’t always get the best competitions. But when he went to Penn Relays and won there twice, I knew he had the ability to go on and compete at a high level.”
Shawn Barber, 21, University of Akron
– NCAA indoor pole vault champion (championship and collegiate record 5.91m)
– NCAA outdoor pole vault champion
One of the most impressive things about Shawn Barber’s 2015 season is just how long it was. He competed consistently from January through to September, breaking records – as well as the NCAA marks he set Canadian bests indoor and out – and collecting medals with unnerving frequency, ultimately ending with gold at the Beijing World Championships.
Chris Elliott, head boys track and field coach at Kingwood Park High School, Texas, where Barber was schooled, says that his talent was evident from an early age. But even as he broke state records and won national titles, Barber remained his normal quiet and determined self.
“What impressed me the most about Shawn is he never lost focus when the media began following his success,” he recalls. “Young kids would take selfies with him and he enjoyed it and took it all in stride. He was very professional in that regard at a very young age.
Elliot recalls one aspect of his personality that explain’s Barber’s fearless performances on the international circuit.
“Shawn is very driven, focused and a great athlete,” he adds, “but one thing I have noticed about him is his ability to vault in the moment. And not allowing the moment to get away from him. He handles himself very well and doesn't get overly emotional.
“He loves competition and wants everyone to be at their best, so when he wins he knows he has done something worthwhile.”
Edward Cheserek, 21, University of Oregon
– NCAA indoor mile champion
– NCAA indoor distance medley relay champion
– NCAA outdoor champion 5000m
– NCAA outdoor champion 10,000m
Edward Cheserek is a rare athlete with a remarkable story. Marty Hannon was his coach at St. Benedict's Prep School, New Jersey, and recalls meeting Cheserek when he first arrived in the country.
“I picked him up at the airport and he came off the plane from Kenya, he didn’t have a penny in his pocket, and he had literally a backpack. Of course he was in a strange country not knowing anybody that he was coming to visit, and was a little unsure, but he settled very nicely.”
It helped that he emerged as such an incredible force when it came to running. Hannon says Cheserek always wanted to use his talent to benefit the whole track team. “He just loved to run on relays with his teammates,” Hannon says. “At Penn Relays we won the distance medley relay. He never won an individual championship at the Penn Relays because he always wanted to run in the distance medley relay with his teammates. It was just that kind of thing.”
Hannon says a stress fracture meant Cheserek was never pushed too hard in high school, so knew that there was more potential to realise.
“I went on all the recruiting visits with Edward. We were kind of like his family: he doesn’t have any family here. I always saw an upside to what Edward did in high school, but I think some of the coaches were a little skeptical, you know. I guess they get that all the time.
“Edward got a stress fracture that first year he came over. We never really pushed it to the limit, never ran 100 mile weeks, that kind of thing. We always kept it within reason. So we always knew that it was an upside. Obviously it’s an amazing story, what he’s done in college, to get three cross country championships in a row, and I don’t know ten championships including a DMR.
“It’s been amazing to watch. We’re his family here in Newark and all the guys on the team are always watching out for his races. We’re just excited to see him run and do so well.”