COLUMBIA — In two weeks, the Stephens College cross country team will be lining up to run its final meet of the 2007 season. Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa hosts the NAIA regional championship. The Stars’ basketball team will also be in Lamoni to play in a two-day basketball tournament hosted by the same school.
In the realm of collegiate athletics, it’s rare to find such a coincidence, but for Rachel Henderson, a junior at Stephens, it adds up to a unique challenge. Henderson is a member of both the Stars’ basketball and cross country teams, and she finds herself scheduled to play in two basketball games and run a 5K race in 24 hours.
Dane Pavlovich has coached Henderson in three seasons of basketball and two seasons of cross country at Stephens, but he didn’t need that long to see that he was working with a special athlete.
During her freshman basketball season at Stephens, Henderson was approached by Pavlovich who had just been told the school would be adding a cross country team. As coach of the new team, he wanted Henderson to be on it.
She had run a season of cross country in high school to get in shape for the upcoming basketball season, but had never considered competitive long-distance running.
“I knew that she had run cross country in high school,” Pavlovich said, “but I didn’t know how serious she would be about doing it.”
Henderson decided to join the new team. She was already running daily to stay in shape for basketball and some of her friends were going to join the team as well.
“At first, I said no because I don’t need anything else to do in my life,” Henderson said, “but I ended up thinking about it, and I run every day anyway and I could earn another scholarship for it, so I just decided to.”
Now, Henderson is one of the Stars’ best runners. Her work ethic and natural leadership have been vital to the team in its first two seasons.
“I was really excited when she came for our first practice and she was leading the team in what we were running,” Pavlovich said. “I’m pretty fortunate that she decided it was an undertaking she wanted to try.”
In the team’s inaugural season last year, Henderson was the best finisher for the Stars in every race, and her fastest 5K of 22:35 set the school record. This season, Henderson has been in the top two finishers for the Stars at each race, highlighted by a second-place finish at the Principia Cowbell Classic in Elsah, Ill.
When basketball practice began at Stephens, Henderson was faced with the daunting task of practicing for two sports each day. To avoid the physical stress of 6 a.m. cross country practices and basketball practices that often didn’t end until after 9 p.m., Henderson and Pavlovich agreed that she would practice basketball with the team and run all of the cross country workouts on her own time.
“The team practices at six, but I usually run around eight or nine,” Henderson said. “I’ll run on the MKT trail or just downtown. I try to run in different places, so I don’t get bored.”
Her drive to succeed has led Henderson to a leadership position on both teams. She was the captain of the basketball team as a sophomore last year and Pavlovich said she is the unofficial leader of the cross country team.
“When she finishes, she’s the first one to stand up and cheer for the other runners to come across the line,” Pavlovich said. “And she’ll stay at practice late to make sure everyone comes in on the long runs.”
In addition to her focus on athletics, Henderson also occasionally hosts dinners and leads an optional bible study for her teammates.
“She’s a super athlete and a super runner, but I think probably everyone on the team will say she’s a better person than she is a runner,” Pavlovich said. “She’s a combination of a lot of things that are very, very good.”
When the Stars’ travel to Lamoni, she will have to be a very good athlete.
“When we first figured out that they were on the same day at the same place, we talked for a couple of minutes about it,” Pavlovich said, “and I said I was going to leave it up to her.”
Henderson says she has faith in her conditioning, and, as of now, plans to play both games and run in the race. Her playing time in the first basketball game might be limited, but she was a team leader in minutes last season, and her teammates will rely on her to play at full speed.
“I never really thought I’d be playing sports in college,” Henderson said, “but now I’m playing two.”