The Strange Magic of Division II

By Flagstaff

July 7, 2017

Two years ago, the NCAA did away with a long-standing slogan published on banners and t-shirts at all NCAA Division II events: “I Chose Division II.”

Likely the product of months of brainstorming, market research and idea boards produced by faceless NCAA bureaucrats, “I chose Division II” was always easy to mock petty and defensive, like something you’d say to an especially critical older relative at a family reunion when they ask if they’ll be able to watch you compete on ESPN.

It’s almost inevitably dishonest. When high school kids daydream about college track, they picture themselves in a singlet that reads “Oregon,” or “Colorado,” or, lately at least, “Ole Miss.”

For the last four years, my singlet bore the colors of Western Washington University. Simply saying that “I chose” Division II leaves out the complex set of circumstances: the push and pull of athletic aspirations and academic expectations and money and everything else.

You don’t choose Division II.

You wind up here, as though transported by a sudden wormhole in the track universe, an opportunity seized from among the meager list of options for a 10:01/4:37 high school athlete who believes he has more to give. You find yourself surrounded by an eclectic mix of people, bouncing between small meets at empty stadiums, grinding trainers you bought on sale to an inch of their life to avoid dropping the next bit of cash on a new pair. It’s a gritty version of this sport, with disappointment and dissolution lurking at every turn.

But every once in a while, an athlete rises out of this strange competitive ecosystem to do something incredible, there’s a special kind of magic at hand.

This year at the USATF Championships in Sacramento, there was a lot of that very magic in the air. We watched from a packed and messy distance team house across the street from campus as two of my former teammates at Western in the top 15 in women’s javelin, former Division II 800 meter stud Drew Windle punched his ticket to the World Championships and David Ribich, our conference 1500-meter champion, beat a load of Olympians to place ninth.

Ribich’s race brought me to my feet. Two and a half years ago, we were battling it out in the last lap of a DMR at the Dempsey in Seattle – a Great Northwest Athletic Conference rivalry playing itself out within a scrum of Division I squads in a race that was won by a Bowerman team anchored by Ryan Hill. I edged him that day but we shook hands afterward, acknowledging that we were lucky to be there at all.

For both of us, the last few years have been about trying to earn spots in fast heats, to maximize the opportunities we receive, which can be few and far between. Division II travel budgets are limited and many of us regularly get bumped to slower heats at big races when the Division I coaches start calling in favors with meet directors.

But, as is true for anyone who has ever made anything happen out of Division II, Ribich managed to make the most of the opportunities he was given and that Western Oregon singlet looked at home next to the pro kits in Sacramento.

The athletes in those pro kits are probably only vaguely aware of the strange little world that exists parallel to theirs. Most of them have been running on a high enough level from an early enough age that they probably can’t fathom just how much of a progression a Division II athlete has to make in order to reach a U.S. championship final, save for maybe Christian Soratos.

This surreal parallel universe of track can serve up storylines that aren’t repeated anywhere else in the collegiate system. Ribich’s absurd progression is emblematic of the desperate hopes that define Division II athletes. For every Division II story that manages to make headlines, like Ribich or my Western teammates dominating the javelin, there are dozens more stories of resilience and redemption that will remain in obscurity.

Division II athletes have to be honest about the fact that we weren’t that fast in high school, that shortcomings economic, or academic, or otherwise, left us with a limited set of options to continue running competitively. But we did it anyway.

Division II means watching a 25-year-old battle it out with a bunch of 20-year-olds for a top-seven spot on a cross-country team with his wife and child cheering on the finishing straight. Only in Division II will that same athlete later weigh the price of a new pair of spikes against the month’s diaper budget.

It’s an island of misfit runners, people who have bounced around to different schools, in and out of the real world. Last year’s GNAC 5,000m champ had taken a year off to have a child. When my teammate lost his wedding ring swimming at pre-season camp and had the entire squad digging through the lake-bottom muck. Adams State’s Jurgen Themen, now a three time Olympian representing his home country of Suriname, won the 2016 Division II 100-meter championship at age 30.

The truth, of course, is that at least at the outset most of us start out somewhat ashamed and apologetic to admit that we’re competing in Division II. We’re quick to point out to former teammates and coaches that we still get to race against Division I guys on a regular basis. Sometimes a Division II roster spot functions more like a junior college for guys intent on transferring once they run a time that means something.

But some of us are proud to have a D-II-shaped chip on our shoulder. There was a moment, about two kilometers into a steeplechase at Azusa Pacific, that I heard a coach scream at his athlete, “Are you kidding me? There’s a D-II guy in front of you.” He surged past me on the inside, throwing an elbow. The moment cut at my deepest insecurities as a runner, the fear that years of hard work and steady progression might never be enough to gain legitimacy that’s long felt just out of reach.

So I threw everything I had into passing him. I wish I could say I held him off, but I faded in the last lap, his coach’s words ringing in my head and salting old wounds of competitive frustration.

When I watch a Division II athlete succeed on the national stage, I know they’ve been through those same moments, that similar doubt has crept into their minds and they’ve been made to feel small by the structure of the collegiate system. And when they transcend all of that, and will themselves into echelons of the sport supposedly reserved for someone else, fear gives way to a special kind of hope.