Sami Spenner's Bid to Become an All-American Tripped Up by the NCAA

Article excerpt

Byline: John Walters

As the country's top collegiate pentathlete, Sami Spenner has displayed exemplary prowess in five disciplines: the 60-meter hurdles, long jump, high jump, shot put and 800-meter run. The one event the senior at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) desperately needs to improve in if she hopes to become an NCAA champion? Tilting at windmills.

Spenner owns the nation's top pentathlon score this season - which she achieved at a meet two weekends ago in Cedar Falls, Iowa - but she will not be invited to next month's NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships in Albuquerque. Why? Because UNO is in the midst of reclassifying itself from a Division II program to a Division I program. Per NCAA rules, the school and its athletes are ineligible for postseason competition for four years. UNO is currently in the third year of its quadrennial purgatory.

"Sami could be on the cover of the NCAA manual as their ideal student-athlete," says her coach, Chris Richardson. "How do you tell her that she can't pursue her dream to become an all-American?"

Besides having the nation's top pentathlon score, a mark that would have been good enough for first place in last year's NCAA championships, Spenner has a 3.81 cumulative GPA, majoring in exercise science. The Columbus, Neb., native, who only ran one year of track in high school and walked onto the team at UNO as a freshman when it was a Division II program, never had designs on breaking the tape, be it finish-line or bureaucratic, at the time.

"I go back to when I walked on to a Division II team and just hoped to high jump," says Spenner. "Do they think I meant to do this?"

Spenner is an accidental all-American, or would be if the NCAA permitted her to compete. The top eight finishers at the championships, half the field, are designated as all-American. Since only five female collegians have ever bested Spenner's mark, it is reasonable to assume that she would finish in the top half of the field in Albuquerque.

Spenner is formally requesting a waiver from the NCAA while informally launching a personal campaign on high-volume track and field sites - UNO's mascot is, after all, a maverick - but those efforts will likely come to naught. She requested a waiver last year and the NCAA denied it, and her appeal, on the grounds that "the committee noted continued support within the NCAA membership of the requirement for reclassifying schools to complete the reclassification process prior to competing in Division I championships."

In other words, regardless of how talented an athlete or how assiduous a student Spenner may be - and she is both - is irrelevant. "It's the classic 'good kid' problem," says John Infante, a former NCAA employee who writes frequently on NCAA-related issues for "She's a good kid, but there are a lot of good kids. You cannot regulate 1,000 schools and nearly 500,000 athletes, as the NCAA endeavors to do, based on who's a good kid." In other words, no exceptions.

The quality and/or character of a student-athlete does not override a pre-existing NCAA guideline, even when, as happens in Spenner's case, the rule appears to be an affront to common sense. …