KNOXVILLE: Sarah Bowman stepped onto the track for the NCAA championship indoor mile race back in March and noticed a competitor's shoe.
"It said 'Guts equals Glory,' the Tennessee star recalled. "I said, 'OK. That will be my motivation. I was battling it out at the finish, and I remembered. 'Don't give this up,' I just kept telling myself."
She ran away with the mile title with a meet-record time of 4:29.72 on March 14, just a day after anchoring a world-record run in the distance medley relay championship. The wins helped Tennessee win its second overall national title.
On Thursday, Bowman will run for one more national title in the 1500 meter race at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field championship in Fayetteville, Ark., in the final race of her stellar collegiate career. She placed third in the race in last year's NCAAs.
"When you get top three, it does get you excited for the next time you get to try and go out. It's motivation," she said.
Bowman has been named either a track and field or cross country All-American nine times and was part of the Tennessee 1500 meter relay team that set a world record and pulled a rare trifecta in the distance races at the prestigious Penn Relays in April.
The 22-year-old Warrenton, Va., native was blessed with superior natural ability, Tennessee coach J.J. Clark said.
"She chose the right parents in that her brilliant talents are very high," said Clark, the NCAA Division I women's coach of the year. "You couple that with the ability to push herself mentally, then you have the unique situation."
Bowman's early love was soccer, but her parents recognized she had natural running abilities as she beat her classmates — including the boys — in races in gym class and had the most endurance on the soccer field.
She wore cheerleading shoes and a soccer jersey to her first few competitive races as a seventh grader. By the end of the school year, she had won races at an AAU Junior Olympic meet and the Hershey Track and Field Games.
"She didn't really train that often because she was training with soccer," her father, Gary Bowman, said. "Most of her training was running in soccer."
Despite having little serious training until later in high school, Bowman found a way to push herself and test her limits on the track.
It paid off as she ran to 15 state championships and three seasons on the All-USA Today track and field team.
At Tennessee, Bowman has won a total of four NCAA titles, including the 2008 distance medley relay, and a school-record 12 Southeastern Conference titles. She is one of four Division I female runners being considered for the 2009 Honda Sports Award for Track and Field.
Her ability to push past obstacles has been key. In January 2008, Bowman had an emergency appendectomy but was back to training in less than a week.
"Incredible," Clark said. "She has the appendectomy and then a couple of weeks later she's running a 4.37 in the mile. I'm just totally baffled. I was like, 'Is this stuff normal?'"
Such effort wasn't just reserved for track. Bowman finished with a 3.87 grade point average in business and was last year's NCAA Division I Indoor Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
Bowman has applied for an NCAA postgraduate scholarship and said if she receives one, she'll take it as a sign she should continue her studies.
But she really would prefer to continue running.
"The first thing is running and to just see how far I can go with it and have fun. You only get one chance, so enjoy it and see what happens."