The NCAA may reject her pleas, but it's getting harder and harder to ignore Sami Spenner's scores.
The UNO track and field standout, shunned from NCAA national championships, traveled to the USA Indoors this past weekend in Albuquerque, N.M., where she put up 4,498 in the pentathlon.
That was No. 2 in the field, ahead of every professional and postcollegiate athlete except Olympian Sharon Day-Monroe. It's also No. 1 among college athletes this season — by a wide margin. Georgia freshman Kendell Williams is second at 4,302.
That's right, the SEC's best can't touch a former walk-on from the Summit League.
Spenner, with only three months remaining in her college career, has used the strict NCAA rulebook as an extra source of motivation.
“I want to get better because I want to get better,” said the Columbus, Neb., native. “But at the same time, I have this deep passion inside of me that's kind of like, 'I want to shove it in your face. Look at what I'm doing.' ”
NCAA rules ban UNO athletes from national championships until 2016. The fact that Spenner is an individual athlete, not a team, doesn't matter.
UNO submitted a waiver request last year, but the NCAA denied it. The athletic department filed another waiver request last week, hoping the NCAA will allow Spenner to compete next month at the NCAA indoor championships — and again at outdoors in June.
The chances aren't good, Spenner knows it. But rather than cross her fingers and hope for the best, she's taken a more aggressive P.R. approach.
After producing 4,406 pentathlon points at Northern Iowa on Jan. 31, shattering her personal best, Spenner sat down one night and — in a moment of frustration — reached out to national outlets who might be willing to share her story. (The World-Herald profiled her last June.)
She wrote a blog post for Track and Field News and LetsRun.com, explaining how she walked away from a Wayne State volleyball scholarship and walked on to the UNO track program with only one year of track experience — Spenner had never competed in the heptathlon or pentathlon.
She detailed how UNO moved to Division I after she arrived, rendering her ineligible for NCAA competition; how she got better and better and better, to the point that she would've qualified for Division I nationals last year as a junior; how the NCAA refused to grant her a waiver because UNO knew the reclassification rules before jumping to Division I; how she declined to transfer to another D-I school because she didn't want to leave her exercise science program.
All of it.
Spenner's column drew attention from national bloggers, radio hosts and, most notably, Newsweek, which profiled her two weeks ago. In that story, NCAA spokesman Chris Radford reiterated the argument for blocking Spenner:
“People ask me all the time how our rule book got so thick,” Radford said. “It's the ifs and buts. If the NCAA were to grant this waiver request, it would only take a few minutes for a school to phone us and ask, 'Why can't our guy compete in the postseason, too?' ”
The NCAA occasionally has reversed decisions following a public outcry. A cross country runner at BYU, for instance, was deemed ineligible after competing in a recreational “fun run.” The story went viral and the NCAA changed its mind. Spenner is willing to do anything to put heat on the NCAA.
She hopes her story will land on the right desk and somebody in power will feel motivated to act.
“It's a last-ditch effort on my part,” she said. “I'm like, you know, I'm sick and tired of sitting around and watching people do well at the national meet and I have to sit around at home.”
Her NCAA battles have the potential to consume her time. They haven't.
Following a rigorous meet at Iowa State, Spenner went to Albuquerque. She was just hoping to hit 4,400 again. But in the fourth event of the pentathlon, she soared 20 feet, 9 ¾ inches in the long jump, beating Day-Monroe and everyone else.
Immediately she knew she had a chance to do something special.
“After that long jump, I was ready to run the 800,” Spenner said of the final event. “I'm normally nervous as crap for it, but I was ready that one.”
Her 800 time of 2:12.87, also a personal record, gave her 4,498 points.
“I had people I didn't even know come up to me and tell me I did a great job,” Spenner said. “Some of them even knew my background and my story. That was pretty cool.”
She still wants to compete against the SEC and Big 12. She still wants to be UNO's first Division I national champion. But Spenner also knows that bigger accomplishments are possible now, including the Olympics. Her score in Albuquerque is the eighth-best mark in the world in 2014. And the seven women ahead of her are older.
Truth is, before long, Spenner will be too good for the NCAA.