By Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information
Micayla Rennick stood at the line at Tucker Stadium on a sweltering May afternoon, aiming to win yet more Ohio Valley Conference gold. She already had claimed a few of those earlier in the conference outdoor meet over the course of the weekend, but her day was far from over.
If you watched her from the stands or from the infield, it appeared as if she was staring off into the distance – a million miles from where she was currently standing. But that couldn't be further from the truth.
Rennick stood at the line, focused on the moment and strategies racing through her mind. When would be the moment to make her move? What kind of pace did she need to start with? What did she need to do to help the team?
By the time the OVC championship concluded, Rennick was responsible for 36 of Tennessee Tech's 151 points in the meet, winning the 10K and the 1,500m, while finishing second in the 800m and the 5K, earning her spot as the Female Athlete of the Championship for the second time in a single academic year. She also won the award at the OVC indoor meet, as well as the regular-season female athlete of the year honors in both.
As she prepared for the race, something her father told her came to mind – "Let go and let God."
A silent prayer resonated through her head, asking for strength and courage to complete her task, the wisdom to do what is needed and for the fellowship of her teammates as they continue their quests.
As the starter pistol fired, Rennick took off without a look of worry or overconfidence.
It was one of determination.
She had work to do.
She wasn't running for herself. She was running for her coaches, her teammates, her family, her faith. With so much on the line, she wasn't going to let any of them down.
It was probably one of the most dominant seasons a Tennessee Tech student-athlete had ever completed.
Through the span of one academic year, Rennick had won two Ohio Valley Conference Track Athlete of the Year honors – claiming both awards in indoor and outdoor track – as well as the league's Athlete of the Championship honors for both.
She became only the third OVC student-athlete – since Athlete of the Championship was first awarded in 2005 – to win all four awards in a single year, joining Tennessee State's Amber Hughes, who accomplished the same feat in 2017, as well as Eastern Illinois' Zye Boey on the men's side, who ran the table in 2009.
"It is a rare thing to have someone win Athlete of the Year as well as Athlete of the Championship twice in the same year," said Tech track and field/cross country coach Wayne Angel. "It is a special athlete indeed that can accomplish such a feat. I am so happy and blessed that Micayla chose Tennessee Tech to bless us with her talent and gifts."
In retrospect, the list of Tennessee Tech athletes who have won both a regular-season superlative honor and the tournament's Most Valuable Player award or took the top spot in the conference tournament or meet is still fairly slim: Cheryl Taylor (women's basketball, 1987), Angela Moorehead (women's basketball, 1990 and 1991), Tom Pack (men's golf, 1990), Roschelle Vaughn (women's basketball, 1993), Lisa Phipps (women's golf, 1995), Mark Maberry (baseball, 1997), Kim Spangler (women's golf, 2000), Adrienne Fortmann (softball, 2001), Bonnie Bynum (softball, 2006 and 2007), Stephanie Place (women's cross country, 2008) and now Rennick.
Rennick is also the first Tech student-athlete to perform to repeat that feat in the same academic year.
She currently holds three Tech indoor records (2:09.83 in the 800m, 4:39.69 in the mile, and 9:30.49 in the 3K) and four records in the outdoor (4:20.92 in the 1,500m, 10:54.69 in the 3K steeplechase, 16:30.27 in the 5K and 34:25.22 in the 10K). She holds the OVC championship record in the indoor mile.
This year alone, she has won OVC indoor titles in the 800m, mile and 3,000, as well as outdoor titles in the 1,500m and the 10K.
"Micayla has been a blessing to this program," Angel said. "Her leadership on and off the field has been priceless. She is a humble person who lets her actions do her talking. She is by no means superhuman – she has her frailties like all humans do. But her faith in God, her teammates and her family give her the strength to do the things that she does.
"She has helped to take this program to heights that it has never experienced before. It will be very hard to replace her."
Prior to coming to Tech as a junior, Rennick spent two seasons on the track team at American River College, competing in the California Community College Athletic Association's ranks. In 2016, she helped the Beavers win a 2016 Big 8 Conference championship, taking the top spot in the 800m. She also placed third in the state championships in the 1,500m.
Fortunately for Tech, Rennick had finished her time there and her coach, Michael Reid, was looking for somewhere the rising junior could not just compete, but win.
"When I was recruiting Micayla, I wanted someone who I thought could take this program to another level in cross country and track in the OVC," Angel said. "When I spoke to her coach at American River, he told me that he had a special lady with a lot of talent and that I shouldn't pass this one up.
"So I flew out to California to look at Micayla, and the rest, as they say, is history. Her work ethic is second to none and her commitment to excellence rivals the best. I knew that she would be a great fit."
Reid knew Coach Angel, and the coach pulled Rennick aside.
"He said, 'Micayla, do you trust me? You've got to go to this guy,'" Rennick reminisced. "I flew out the day before school started and kind of just got thrown into everything."
Rennick hardly knew anything about the school, much less the Tech program, but she knew what she was told about Angel and the work he had accomplished. She spent most of her time, however, just trying to become eligible for enrollment at Tech.
"That summer, I probably didn't do my homework as well as I should have, because I was busy doing other homework so I could come here," she said. "I had to take 18 credit hours that summer. I knew a little bit about Coach Angel, the programs he had been with and the kind of athletes he's produced and I was, 'OK, I think this is a good decision.'"
To say it was a departure from her previous school is probably an understatement. There's always an adjustment period, but, in time, the rapport grew.
"(On the JUCO level) I was injured and I was just kind of shuffling around, getting tossed around. I was trying to establish a good relationship with Coach (Michael) Reid – he'll tell you, as would Coach Angel, that it takes me a long time to trust a coach.
"At first it was like, 'OK, I don't really know you. I don't really know your training.' Even now, I'm like 'Why am I doing this?' But I've come to trust Coach Angel 110 percent. Having him there as someone who can guide me, not only in my running, but in life and in what I want to do with my life – which is continuing to run and to coach – it's vital.
Rennick continued, "He's not afraid to say 'I don't know.' He doesn't pretend to know everything. He's crafted my running in such a way, but to have him say 'I don't know and we'll figure it out together' – it's not only a coach-athlete relationship, I feel like it's almost like mentor-future 'insert label here.'"
But the veteran coach found ways to inspire and motivate the senior Rennick, helping her push through and earn her accolades this season.
"It's just drive, a constant drive," she said. "Inspiration-wise, I have my favorite athletes, of course, that I want to be like, but it's the constant goal-setting that Coach Angel pushes me to do. He doesn't accept complacency. We'll say we won conference and he'll ask what's after conference. Regionals. What's after that? Nationals. He really pushes me to set high goals and put really high expectations for myself. That's what drives me through every workout – that mindset that there's always going to be a next step.
"I always wonder if being on this track helps me now or in the future, but I know it's pushing me for the future."
To be a part of the program Angel has built in Tech over the last four years is awe-inspiring for Rennick.
"It means everything," she said. "I'm just proud to be a part of a program that could set higher standards for Tech and a higher expectation for the athletes coming in. This team has won back-to-back championships and now you have to rise to the occasion. Are you going to bring it or are you not? It's just amazing to me to see how everyone has developed as athletes in two years. I can only imagine how it is for Anna (Cooper) and Maddie (Stremler) to be here the full four years that Coach Angel has been here and see how it all has come along."
Angel added, "We have always strived to have a program that is significant as well as formidable in the classroom as well as in competition. That is the culture we are developing here.
"To have athletes of the caliber of Micayla, Na'Asha (Robinson), D'Airrien (Jackson) and Khemani (Roberts) is very special and they bring respect and honor to our program."
And Rennick isn't done with Angel's tutelage yet as she plans to seek his guidance towards the next step.
"It's scary (thinking about what's up ahead)," Rennick laughed. "There are times where I feel like I'm in high school again. It's scary, but exciting at the same time, because I do have this opportunity to run at higher levels. That's why I want to stay here and train with Coach Angel after the year is done. After that, it's like this whole new world. I'm really excited for it. I'm excited to see what Coach Angel can draw out of me further in another year. My goal is the 2020 Olympic Trials. I'm thinking, 'Can I make that? Am I going to be on the line?' It's kind of hitting me that I need to get everything together. What kind of runner am I?"
Of course, the motivation, the inspiration isn't just coming from her coach. After all, Rennick is just trying to live out her dream.
"I really want to go pro," she said. "That's all I've ever dreamed about since I was little. At first it was soccer, but since I reached high school and raced my first race, I wanted to become a professional runner. Obviously, the 2020 Olympic Trials are on the line. If I make it, I make it. If I don't, I was there and I'll make it the next time.
"But I want to make it, not only for myself and for God, obviously, but for the people who put the time and effort into my training. I've had coaches who coached athletes who almost made it or they themselves have almost made it. I want to honor what they've done as athletes and as coaches with my running. I want to show that there is one God through my running. He is a miracle worker."
She takes that to heart as that comes into play before every race.
"I try not to think too much about it the night before," Rennick said. "Falling asleep, I envision the race a little bit – it's the nerves, you've got to work them out a little bit. I just try to stay as relaxed as possible. There's lots and lots of prayer – always before I race, always on the line to give it everything I've got.
"My dad actually told me something this last race that really inspired me to keep going: 'Let go and let God.' That's really good words of wisdom, because He already has the race planned out. All I have to do is run it. That just takes so much of the anxiety off."
And during her more strenuous races, that faith continues to play a major role.
"The 10K is terrifying," Rennick said. "Around mile four, I get so scared. I have two miles to go and I'm so tired. Being able to pray while I'm running and I'm thinking, 'Lord, Jesus, help me. I need you right now.' This weight comes off."
Then, there's her family. The thought of them, their support, their love – it helps Rennick push through for the final stretch.
"I do it for my mom and dad who both used to be runners, and my brother who is much more talented than I am," she said. "He's a Marine, so he goes on rucks, carrying 80 pounds on his back for 26 miles. I complain about running five sometimes.
"He was actually messaging me during the conference meet, and he's in Norway on his first deployment, so to know I've got my little brother supporting me in Norway, it just means everything. He believes in me. We've fought, obviously, but knowing that he believes in me, it just means the world."
The familiar bond stretches far beyond flesh and blood. Over the course of her time at Tech, Rennick has gained so many new members of her family, stretching from all over the world and so many walks of life.
Without her teammates, what she has accomplished wouldn't have been possible.
"These girls have picked me up," Rennick said. "D'Airrien (Jackson) has been an amazing support system for me at the start of the year and she still is. Na'Asha (Robinson) has this bubbly energy and is always going for it. Maddie (Stremler) has her faith and brings it to the team. Anna (Cooper) has her grandmotherly wisdom and Courtney (McCowan) … I could literally say something special about every one of my teammates, but that would be like three pages of me talking about my team."
"It is such a family environment. We have that chemistry. Even though, ideally, you'd want a team to be fully integrated, you're always going to have the sprinter family, the jumper family, the distance family, because that's who we train with. Even though we have this amazing cohesiveness and sisterhood as a team, those little families are who drives us and we see how those other little families among us work and support that, help that grow. I honestly couldn't do it without my family. These girls are my family, my sisters. Of course, we fight, we bicker, but that's just a part of sisterhood. It's never smooth sailing. Any sibling will tell you that."
Going into the 2018 track and field seasons, there definitely was some uncertainty. Rennick was coming off of a tumultuous cross country season, and she needed confidence before hitting the track.
"I kind of had to reinvent myself from cross country," Rennick said. "There was a lot of personal struggles that I was going through and some really, really tough decisions that I had to make. At first, I didn't know if I had made the right ones. Sometimes, I still don't know if I made them. If I had made certain decisions, I don't even know if I'd still be here, but, in the end, I think it helped me refocus. It did cause a lot of hardship. Sometimes you have to go over those hurdles to get success. I'm hoping that those hardships will play out nicely in the end."
As the season continued, Rennick continued to improve, gaining confidence and determination. She continually bettered her times and became a force to be reckoned with in the conference.
"It seemed like every time I stepped out there, I was setting a new mark," she said. "Coach Angel said, 'Yeah, you've been training to do this.' It was still kind of a 'whoa' feeling to me. I just ran that. Just in the conference meet, I ran a 10K, then to an 800m the next day, then ran the mile, another 800m, then a 5K. All I'm wondering -- how did my body not break?
"It's just really cool to push. When I cross the line, I ask myself how much energy do I have left. I ran this, I know I can run that. I have more in me. It's a constant exploration of my athletic ability, which is pretty cool."
The team won the OVC Indoor championships at Eastern Illinois, the first time the Tech women's program had claimed the honor. But they were far from done.
The 2018 outdoor track season then culminated with the team hosting the OVC Outdoor Track and Field Championships from Tucker Stadium, the first time Tech had hosted the event since 2010.
Finally, it was an opportunity for the team to showcase what they have been building toward in front of their home fans and spectators.
"A lot of the motivation we have had has been the community," Rennick said. "They have been so supportive of us, especially as they've seen us grow and achieve so much. Friends, fellow student-athletes, coaches – I saw the soccer coach (Steve Springthorpe and his staff, among many other Tech coaches) out there, just cheering us on and supporting us.
"We never really race at home. If we do, it's at Vanderbilt and that's still over an hour away. I'm hoping that we can host some kind of meet again. Future generations of track athletes would love to have that and our track is gorgeous and a dream to run on."
And it was personal motivation for Rennick.
"I've never really ran like that before," she said. "I never really had that fuel. This is MY track. No one is beating me on MY track."
In the sweltering heat on a track surface and stadium turf that was reaching over 100 degrees in temperature, it wasn't an easy day for anyone, much less the student-athletes competing.
But Rennick pushed through with one thought on her mind.
"I was going to do the impossible with my team," she said. "Back-to-back championships. Tech had never won an outdoor championship, but it had never had an indoor championship either, much less a team go back-to-back like that in one season. I just kept thinking that we needed more points. This is the plan. Think of the conference like it's training for the NCAA Regionals. I had to be tough, because Regionals is going to be the hardest race I've ever run. It was mental preparation as well as physical preparation as well getting my girls that gold. I've got to represent my girls."
She wasn't going to stop. Through the course of the weekend, Rennick kept thinking, battling, searching for that inner strength to push through.
"I'm thinking, 'how many laps do I have left?'" Rennick said. "I'm just trying to stay relaxed. I'm staying aware of who's around me. I'm listening to Coach, I'm listening to Dan (Williamson). I'm trying to block out the crowd – even though, that does help. In the last two laps, I'm like I've got to do this. It actually becomes a problem in the shorter races – I call it 'falling asleep' where you just run on instinct. It becomes like clockwork, because your body is so used to it. In the shorter races, you've got to wake up and sprint for your life."
As the day came to a close, Rennick was a constant figure on the podium, winning medal after medal, trophy after trophy.
"That was insane," Rennick said. "That 800m race is going to eat at me a little bit (finishing second by a footstep -- .02 seconds -- to Murray State's Hilary McAdam). I was so focused on the inside lane and she snuck up on me. I just have to lean a little bit next time. I'll have to take some lessons from Khemani (Roberts) or Ceirra (Tate) on how to lean. In a distance race, you don't do that – it's just who collapses first.
"It was amazing, just knowing all of those miles had paid off and knowing that's going to feed into something else. It was something just to represent Tech on our home track in a positive way. It was life-changing. I feel like a different person when I race now."
Now, it's uncharted territory ahead for Rennick. She qualified for Thursday's 10K run in the NCAA East Preliminary in Tampa, Fla., and will try to secure a spot in June's NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
"For Na'Asha and D'Airrien, this is familiar," Rennick said. "But for me, the biggest race I can compare this to is conference or the Florida Relays. That just had an amazing energy to it. At Florida, to be running with professionals and these girls that I'll be racing are close to that. It's whole new waters and I'm just hoping I don't drown."
But is she nervous or excited for the opportunity?
"I'm a little bit of both," she said. "I decided on running the 10K, even though the 1,500m will always have my heart. I believe in Coach and he thinks I can do it. He thinks I can do something crazy in the 10K. Ok, that's 15 more times I have to run the track.
"But I'm really excited. Nervous, but excited. The last time I ran a 10K, it was me leading for the first four miles and leading's exhausting. To actually be in a race where I'm racing for six miles, I actually get to be strategic, like I was in conference, and slow the race down, but actually get to be out there and battling with other women whom I've probably never raced before. Oh, I'm so excited. It's going to be so much fun."
Photos by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information