University of Minnesota
Heather Dorniden has frequently been at the head of the pack in her prolific track career at the U. She was the NCAA indoor champion in the 800 meters as a freshman, and has gone on to become an eight-time All-American, establishing herself as the most decorated Gopher women's track and field athlete in history.
Photo courtesy University Athletics
Big fish, big pond
Eight-time All-American Heather Dorniden tacks on awards for leadership and service
By Rick Moore
It's a good thing for fans of Gopher track and field that Heather Dorniden is as fond of running as she is of playing the flute. (For that matter, the Big Ten Network should be grateful, too. More on that later.)
Dorniden was on track for a potential music scholarship when she discovered that she could parlay her running talent into a scholarship at the University of Minnesota. At Rosemount High School, she was a five-time all-state performer, and she won Class AA state titles in the 400 meters as a junior and 800 meters as a senior.
That was just a prelude for Dorniden, who, in a four-year span, has rewritten the record books at the U. She was the NCAA indoor champion in the 800 meters as a freshman, and has gone on to become an eight-time All-American, establishing herself as the most decorated Gopher women's track and field athlete in history. She was a finalist for the U's Female Athlete of the Year this year, and won the award in 2008.
Moreover, she has been a big fish—although she would argue otherwise—in a sea change for women's track. During Dorniden's tenure, the Gophers have won six Big Ten championships in track and cross country. They'll shoot for a seventh this weekend at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships at Ohio State.
For Dorniden, a senior kinesiology major with a 3.9 GPA, the awards keep coming. On May 4 at the President's Awards Banquet, she was presented a President's Student Leadership and Service Award along with a University of Minnesota Alumni Association Leadership Award. She is also one of just 87 women to be awarded an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship (along with Gopher swimmer Jenny Shaughnessy).
Placing a high value on service
Dorniden seems to relish the off-the-track awards as much as her All-American honors. "Coming to the end of my career here, I think it's [great] to be recognized for all the other things that I've tried to do beyond athletics," she says. "I think a lot of people assume that athletes at the University of Minnesota are just here to play the game, and there's a lot more involved with it."
She says someone in athletics sends out an e-mail every week with volunteer opportunities. "If there's ever anything that doesn't conflict with my practice or class schedule and I know I don't have like five tests, I say 'Sign me up,'" she says.
Her teammates share that ethos. For the second straight year, the women's track team was honored with a Community Service Award at the Golden Goldys Awards Banquet. The more than 100 student-athletes on the team combined to volunteer over 1,500 hours in 2008-09 for organizations such as Special Olympics, Feed Our Starving Children, and Big Brothers and Sisters.
Dorniden, who naturally wears a smile and is quick to laugh, positively lights up when she talks about volunteering with elementary school kids. "They treat you like you're a superstar. They want your autograph and they think you're amazing," she says. "It's so fun to be able to do things that you know will impact their lives. You're given such a great platform from which to speak when you are an athlete that they listen to you and they care what you have to say."
That race where she fell down
Ranking her many accomplishments over four years can be a difficult task, but there are certainly some that rise to the top. Like being a part of a half dozen Big Ten championship teams—the first ever titles in women's track or cross country history. "It's been fun to be a part of that program ... like I contributed to something that will be a lasting legacy for our team," she says, sporting a gold 2009 Big Ten indoor championship T-shirt. "Especially our first [cross country title], because it meant a lot to some of our seniors on the team that year to be able to do that."
Her first and only national title, in the 800 meters in her first year, was also special. Prior to the race she was reminded that the team's long-time equipment manager had passed away that year. "And my coach said to me before the race, 'Sometimes you don't know if you have a next year or even a tomorrow, so just go out there and run it the best that you can.'"
But Dorniden will forever be remembered for one race in particular—a final heat in the 600-meter race at the Big Ten Indoor Championships in March of 2008. Minnesota hosted the event, so Dorniden was running in front of a friendly crowd, including scores of U fans and her parents. "When I watch [the tape], my heart rate still goes up like crazy and I almost shake," she says. "You get nervous all over again for races when you watch them."
Especially when you know what happens on the last lap.
With 200 meters to go and in the lead pack of four runners, Dorniden's feet got tangled up with those of a Penn State runner, and she fell in a heap on the unforgiving floor of the Field House.
In her mind, she bounced back up in a nanosecond, like Ozzie Smith after fielding a grounder in the hole in his heyday for the Cardinals. In reality, as played out on her dad's videotape, the fall was more dramatic.
"I literally thought that I just skinned my knees and put my hands down and got back up," she says. "I never realized that I skidded on my stomach on the ground. I was bouncing on the track."
By the time she got back up, she trailed the lead pack by about 30 meters with less than 200 meters to go. In a race that's essentially a sprint. No chance, right?
At first, Dorniden just vowed to finish the race. Then she was bolstered by the enthusiasm of the fans, who saw her making her move. "It got so loud, and then I heard the announcer saying, 'And watch out for Heather Dorniden!' I was like, 'I'm actually still in the race. Sweet.'"
She exploded past Fawn Dorr, the Penn State runner, at the start of the last turn. On the final straightaway she left an Indiana runner in her wake and at the tape she nudged past teammate Jamie Dittmar. "That last 50 meters, I hit a gear that I never knew I had," Dorniden says.
She finished second in the 600 meters to a runner from the previous heat, but the performance left a mark beyond any divots in the Field House track. The Big Ten Network named Dorniden the first-ever recipient of its Most Courageous Performance award last June.
"It's probably one of my greatest running memories of all time. It's something that is completely unexplainable to me besides through a higher power. I feel like the Lord just filled me up and gave me the opportunity to show what amazing things can happen through Him."
More steps ahead
Dorniden will graduate in December after a final season of cross-country eligibility in the fall. After that, her options are open. She plans to attend physical therapy school—ideally at the University of Minnesota—but she'd also like to continue training in the hopes of making a bid for the 2012 Olympics in London. She competed in the Olympic trials last summer, pre-Beijing, but feels that racing all year long through the cross country, indoor, and outdoor track seasons had left her burned out.
"It'd be really cool to at least go to another trials and see what I can do," she says. Plus I really don't know what I'd do if I just stopped running all of a sudden."
But first things first. Dorniden and the Gophers are poised for a serious run at a "triple crown" by winning the Big Ten Outdoor Championship, following their cross country and indoor titles in the fall and winter.
There's no shortage of inspiration for Dorniden. She'll be taking her marks in Columbus knowing her teammate and roommate Gabriele Anderson can only be there in spirit. Anderson, whom Dorniden describes as a great runner and an "energy leader", as well as a team captain, had a cancerous tumor removed earlier this spring and will be sidelined for the meet.
"I've been trying to do everything [in tribute to] her this year. So it'd be really cool to win it for Gabe," she says. "It just makes me realize again, you never really know how many more steps you have in you."
The Gophers came close but were unable to attain to attain the triple crown, finishing third at Columbus. Penn State took the title with with 139 points, Michigan finished second with 138.75, and Minnesota tallied 131.5 points.