Competing together: pentathlon duo pushes, helps each other
March 12, 2018
Story and photos by Leah Rado
The word ‘compete’ comes from Latin origins, meaning to meet or come together, or to seek together.
This past weekend, Megan Sundstrom and Jenna Degen proved that they truly know how to compete — how to seek together.
Heading into the last chance meets for the indoor track and field season, Sundstrom — a senior on the College of Saint Benedict track and field team — was ranked 17th in Division III in the pentathlon and Degen, a junior, had yet to compete. Degen, the 2017 MIAC pentathlon champion and indoor All-American, had been sick during the 2018 conference meet and hadn’t completed a pentathlon this season.
Sundstrom, who finished in the top 12 in the nation in the pent at the 2017 indoor national championships, would be the last one accepted into the 2018 field – if no one recorded a better score than her at a last chance meet – so the duo headed to the Wartburg Qualifier to try to qualify.
Degen took third in the 60 hurdles to start the five-event competition and Sundstrom finished fifth. Degen got third again in the high jump while Sundstrom took sixth, and a fourth for Degen in the shot put – despite a new PR – and a sixth for Sundstrom meant they both needed big marks in the next event. Long jump is typically the best event for both athletes, but Degen fouled twice – including a big final jump – and Sundstrom also had a long foul, and they finished sixth and seventh.
With only the 800-meter run remaining, Sundstrom knew it would take an incredible time for her to improve on her season-best pentathlon score. Degen, however, had a shot. She would need a 2:28 to try and bump her score up where it would need to be to have a shot at qualifying for nationals. Sundstrom, who had competed in – and won – the MIAC pentathlon the week before and then several individual events and relays at the MIAC Championships, was still recovering and knew she couldn’t run a full 800, nor was it worth it. But Degen could and, with some help, she could run the time she needed.
So Sundstrom agreed to run as a pacer for her teammate.
At the start of the race, Sundstrom told the other runners in the field her intentions: she would be running 36 or 37-second laps to pace Degen, but she was dropping out after 600 meters.
“It was hard when I realized that my chances of going (to nationals) this year were slim. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t a hard decision to help pace Jenna because I would still be proud that anyone from CSB went to nationals. It doesn’t have to be me. Since Jenna had a better shot, I figured that made more sense to help her,” Sundstrom said. “I told the other runners what I was doing because it ultimately helped all of the runners because they knew I was running a 36-37 second lap pace, so it helped them to push themselves and shoot for their own PRs.”
The gun sounded, and Sundstrom took off and quickly settled in ahead of the rest of the field. Head coach Robin Balder-Lanoue and assistant coach Julia Renner staggered themselves around the track to help her keep track of the pacing. Around each curve of the 200-meter track, Sundstrom would look back and shout words of encouragement at Degen. “Stick with me, Jenna! You have to stay up here!”
After three laps, Sundstrom pulled to the side of the track and watched the other runners pass. Degen held the lead for 100 meters or so, and ended up taking second in 2:30.22 – just shy of the 2:28 they were looking for, but an excellent time considering she had been fighting illness for several weeks.
“Jenna needed to run a 2:28 to score, and she has run a 2:26,” Sundstrom said. “It is definitely a daunting feat, especially running alone. So I did what any teammate would do, and I did what I could to help Jenna. I know she would have done it for me.”
Neither athlete ended up qualifying for the indoor national championships, but they came up just short. Degen’s score of 3, 280 was 20th — just 12 points behind the 17th-place cutoff — and Sundstrom’s score of 3,266 from the Bison Invitational in January left in her in 21st.
“I’m very proud of both Megan and myself to be able to compete like we did at the meet, especially considering the circumstances,” Degen said. “I feel so grateful to be able to have a teammate like Megan who is able to push me to be the best athlete on the track, but also the best person and teammate every day. I don’t think either of us would have the success we do if we didn’t have each other.
“I think we are a truly special duo, and it makes for a very special thing when a teammate knows when to push you, but also knows when you just need a hug or to be left alone.”
Both athletes look to make their return to the national championships in May at the 2018 NCAA Outdoor National Championships in La Crosse, Wis. Degen finished third and earned All-American in the heptathlon as a sophomore, and Sundstrom finished in the top 15 in the nation. Balder-Lanoue knows that if one is there at outdoor nationals, the other one will be as well.
“Being a Blazer means you are in this program to be the best teammate and the best athlete you can be every day. Being a great teammate isn’t just about always encouraging your teammate; some days, it is about giving a kick in the butt, and other days it’s about giving a hug,” she said. “As (Jenna and Megan) pursue the same goals, they understand that balance. They understand that to compete means to ‘seek together.’ They want to kick each other’s butts and they don’t take it personally. Rather than getting upset when one of them has a better day, it pushes them to want more from themselves and each other.
“If one of them hits the goal to be the top in the nation, the other one knows that she can be there, too.”