By Jessica Bernheim
UMBC Assistant Director of Athletic Communications
In Fall 2008, an accomplished netball player from Lancashire,England, arrived at UMBC looking for a way to stay active during her year abroad.
Three years later, Sara Parkinson will graduate as one of the most accomplished distance runners in UMBC history.
This weekend in Boston, Parkinson will attempt to become the first Retriever ever to finish in the top 10 at the America East Cross Country Championships three years in a row. She placed ninth in her first conference meet in 2008, then followed that up with a sixth-place finish last season.
It's quite a journey for someone who had only run semi-competitively before arriving in the United States and who only intended to stay in the country for a year.
"Sara came to us very raw," head coach Matt Gittermann said. "She had some experience, but far less than what we normally get from high school athletes, but you could tell there was immense talent."
At home in England, Parkinson was a member of the Loughborough University netball team – a sport which she describes as a combination of basketball and Ultimate Frisbee. The sport is not played extensively in the U.S., but it is popular in the United Kingdom, as well as other Commonwealth Nations, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Jamaica.
Parkinson began playing netball at an early age and eventually reached a high level, earning Player of the Year honors from her clubs and even touring New Zealand with the British Colleges Team in 2005. She was also a member of a running club, but she considered that her secondary sport.
"If it was a netball game or a cross country meet, it would be the netball game I went to," she said. "I would never prioritize cross country over it. I'd run maybe a few races every now and again."
But when she arrived at UMBC, Parkinson knew netball was not an option, so she turned to cross country.
"I couldn't not do a sport for a year, I'd go mad," she said, "so I thought I'd try and run."
A former classmate at Loughborough, Suzanne Richards, had done the same study abroad program the previous year while running cross country and track and field for the Retrievers and had recommended Parkinson to the coaches.
Parkinson walked onto the cross country team in 2008 and experienced immediate success, winning her first-ever race, the Towson Invitational.
"It was kind of a shock, but it motivated me to do better," she said, adding that she never expected to accomplish as much as she has. "I thought, 'I'll just join, do a few races, see how it goes,' and then I come out and win my first-ever race for UMBC. It was kind of bizarre."
Two weeks later, she placed third at the more competitive Princeton Invitational, the final tune-up for the America East Championships, where she earned all-conference honors.
Soon enough, the Retriever coaches offered her a scholarship to stay at UMBC instead of returning to England at the end of the school year.
"There was never really any indication that she wanted to stay until the very end of the year," Gittermann said. "I do not believe that staying for more than a year or running at the level she was running was in the plans. Over the course of the entire year, we were all hounding her to come back, and eventually I think we wore her down and she decided to stay."
Parkinson is now a three-sport athlete at UMBC, as she also competes on the indoor and outdoor track and field teams, and she has made an impact on those squads, as well, earning all-conference honors five times. At the 2010 America East Indoor Championships, she won the 5,000-meter run and broke the school record (16:47.69) in the process.
Running year-round takes a special kind of mindset because a runner cannot take a break from training. Even when on vacation, Parkinson makes time to fit in a run.
"You have to be dedicated and hard-working," she said. "I put in a lot of effort. Running 80 miles a week is not easy; I think it's one of the most enduring sports I've ever done, and it takes up the most time and energy. You're in it all year, there's no break. In the netball season, you'd get the summer off and you didn't have to train if you didn't want to. But even when I go on holiday I have to run, so a vacation is never an actual vacation. You can't get behind in your training."
But even with such a rigorous training schedule, Parkinson knows she is in school to get an education, and she takes her studying seriously. She says she often takes homework on the road and works on it on the bus, and she spends much of her weekends in the library.
"It takes a lot of hard work," she said. "I'm either studying or running, pretty much."
The hard work has paid off, as she boasts an outstanding 3.73 grade-point average as a geography major, and she has been recognized on the America East All-Academic Team, as well as the prestigious CoSIDA/ESPN Academic All-District First Team.
"Sara is arguable the best female runner in the history of this school," Gittermann said. "But if we look beyond that, she is the consummate teammate, a leader to everyone on the team, a gifted and driven student – everything a coach looks for when recruiting a student-athlete."
After graduation she plans to go back to England, where there is a different grading system in place, so Parkinson believes that the stronger her GPA, the better chance she will have to get a good job. Another possibility she has considered is returning to Loughborough University to pursue a master's degree in sport management in hopes of breaking into the event planning side of sports.
Even when she leaves the U.S. and returns to a place where netball once ruled her heart, Parkinson says she will continue running.
"I don't think I could ever go from running 70-80 miles a week to not running at all," she said. "Sometimes when I take a day off I get antsy, so I don't know how I would be able to not ever run again. I think once you're a runner, you're always a runner."