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December 9, 2008

One of the best: Tasmin Fanning's impressive month places her among elite company

By: Matt Kovatch

Tasmin Fanning is one of the greatest athletes in Virginia Tech history.

If that sounds like a bold statement, then you’re probably not sure who she is. And even if you are, then you’re not giving the Tech runner her due credit. What the senior from Charlottesville, Va., has done over the past month and a half has been nothing short of remarkable, and it’s catapulted her up the list of the best to ever don the orange and maroon.

It’s a long and distinguished list, and who belongs at the top may never be accurately determined because it’s impossible to compare eras and sports and accomplishments. If the decision is based upon a long and Hall-of-Fame-worthy professional career, then Bruce Smith may be at the top of the list. If it’s based upon name recognition and putting Blacksburg on the national map, then it’s got to be Michael Vick. And if it’s on individual dominance and being considered one of the best the sport has ever seen, it might be Angela Tincher.

But if you look at All-America awards, the one thing every collegiate student-athlete has the chance to earn, then Fanning gets closer and closer to the top of that list. There have been many All-Americans in Tech’s athletics history, but only 10 individuals have earned the honor more than twice. Only five have earned it more than three times, and Fanning is one of those five. And with four All-America nods, she still has two seasons – indoor and outdoor track – to go before she’s finished.

She placed third at the NCAA Cross Country Championships on Nov. 24th to cap a record-setting fall season, and on Dec. 5th at the Appalachian Invitational, she got right back at it by crushing Tech’s indoor 3,000-meter record by 10 seconds to automatically qualify for the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships to be held March 13th and 14th.

There’s no telling if she’ll catch former thrower Spyridon Jullien’s school-leading seven All-America awards, but even if she doesn’t, she belongs on the list of Tech’s most accomplished. Just don’t ask her about it.

“Nooooo,” she scoffs when asked if she’s ever thought about herself being one of the best ever at Tech. She’s almost embarrassed by the idea of it, and briefly abandons her whisper-like inflection. “I have the perspective that it’s not that great because, look, you have Queen Harrison, who went to the Olympics! And you have the football players who go and play in the pro leagues – that’s pretty amazing. We have a ton of athletes here [at Tech] who have so much success. I’m just trying to fit in with all of that and stay up to par with everyone else.”

It’s not hard to believe her modesty if you’ve ever met her – her soft-spoken and unassuming nature resembles the way she glides effortlessly over the cross-country terrain – but maybe that’s why she’s been so successful. To her, no race is bigger than the last one or the next one, so much so that she has trouble choosing her most exciting accomplishment. She gives the nod to when she qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer in Oregon and met President-elect Barack Obama, but it’s her level-headedness that keeps her succeeding time and time again.

“I definitely think that has contributed to the successes I’ve had,” Fanning said. “I believe that having a consistency within your training is key. Keeping a level head is very important because it’s a very careful balance. You can go too far and be too regimented, saying, ‘OK, I need to do this, this and this.’ I’ve tried that. Or you can say, ‘I will focus for my workouts and I will do what I can to make sure that I don’t get hurt, but I also need that mental break where I can just hang out, enjoy myself and be a college student.’ It’s so easy to get sucked into the intensity of it all.”

Other runners have said the same thing, so it’s apparent that one needs to be mentally strong to succeed at the sport. When Fanning lost the Atlantic Coast Conference championship on Nov. 1st by six-tenths of a second, she wasn’t even upset. She led with the finish line in sight before stepping in a dip in the field and breaking her stride, which allowed Florida State’s Susan Kuijken to pass her for the win.

“It was a little frustrating in that respect, but to have an exciting finish like that, I was just glad that I was able to participate in that,” Fanning said. “Yeah, it would’ve been great to win the ACC (her second-place finish was the best by a Hokie since Tech joined the league), but at that point, there were still regionals and nationals left. There are more important things. I knew there was nothing I could do better at that point.”

Tasmin Fanning’s third-place showing at the NCAA Cross Country Championships on Nov. 24 was the best finish by any Hokie, male or female, in Virginia Tech history.

Fanning made up for the close call two weeks later in Clemmons, N.C., by winning the NCAA Southeast Regional by almost seven seconds, becoming the first Tech runner to win a regional meet. The victory ensured her of a third consecutive trip to the national championship, but once again, it wasn’t a big deal.

“It was kind of exciting, but ultimately, I wish the entire team had done as well I felt we could have done,” Fanning said. “That way, we could’ve gone to nationals together instead of just me as an individual.”

The Hokies did go to nationals as a team in 2006 when Fanning was a sophomore – she finished 77th – but she qualified individually as a junior and surprised herself by placing 12th and collecting her second All-America award (the first came as part of the distance medley relay team at the NCAA indoor track nationals as a sophomore, and the third came in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA outdoor meet as a junior). She’d run the course in Terre Haute, Ind., twice before her final go around on Nov. 24th, and it proved advantageous as her third-place showing proved to be the best by any Hokie – male or female – in school history.

And to think it may have never happened if not for a few out-of-control board games as a child.

Born in Seattle, Fanning, her mother, Elizabeth, and her sister, Jessica (who also runs for Tech), moved to San Francisco for Tasmin’s early years before settling in Virginia. When Jessica, who is a year older than Tasmin, got to high school, Elizabeth made her choose a sport to participate in.

“Jessica and I used to get really into board games and that wouldn’t go very well,” Tasmin remembered. “I think my mom decided, “OK, these girls are a little competitive.’ So she wanted to give us an outlet, but she also wanted us to find a group of people that we could hang out and relate to.”

“Plus, being on a team, you develop all sorts of different qualities that are good to have in the real world, so I think she was looking toward that as well.”

Jessica chose cross country and because Tasmin enjoyed running the mile in gym class during junior high, she followed suit a year later. The rest is history.

Not only did Elizabeth’s decision help Tasmin to discover her amazing talent and send her on to her successful collegiate career, but it also helped Tasmin in what may have been her most difficult time.

Elizabeth was diagnosed with cancer during Tasmin’s freshman year at Tech – her first year away from home. And while Tasmin’s steady and even-keeled mentality has been her most valuable asset toward succeeding as a runner, it was the running that kept her so even-keeled during her mom’s health scare.

Tasmin Fanning receives some hardware with some of the other top finishers at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind.

“It was hard because there was nothing I could do,” Tasmin remembered. “But my running really served as an outlet. Just getting your sleep, training consistently and staying focused is really important, and that probably did help me get through things. With the whole situation with my mom, I didn’t know what was going on and I couldn’t help out. It was completely unpredictable, but I did have control over what I could do with myself. It was good that there was a routine that I could stick to.”

Elizabeth is fine now – “She got her two-year scan back and she’s clear for now,” Tasmin said. – and Tasmin has improved by leaps and bounds ever since. What began as a simple way to get involved as a freshman in high school has turned into a four-year career that has her name mentioned among the all-time Hokie greats. The humble cross country star still has to pinch herself.

“Throughout high school, I would just kind of run and see what happened,” she said. “Coming to college was great – I thought it would be a really good opportunity to see how much further I could go. But sometimes I do surprise myself and I realize, ‘Oh! That’s pretty cool that I’m here and that I did this!’ But ultimately, I just kind of go with the flow, see what comes my way and hope for the best.”

It’s a simple philosophy, but Fanning no longer has to hope for the best. She’s already among the best.