Kentucky's female athletes unite for grueling workouts, form lasting loyalties

jsmith3@herald-leader.comJune 16, 2012 

A deep violet sky begins to glow hot pink as the sun peeks up over the tree line and makes the white clouds light up.

It's a breathtaking backdrop for a group of women, already quite breathless.

Carrying 45-pound weights — the size of an average kindergarten boy — athletes from women's teams at the University of Kentucky make their way up and back on the football practice fields.

As the sun finally shows itself up over the trees of a nearby neighborhood, a loud voice cracks the quiet.

"Get better today," strength and conditioning coach Stephanie Tracey Simmons yells to the nearly 50 female athletes here as a part of their eight-week summer training regimen.

The athletes from six different teams are going through what their beloved — and sometimes detested — "Coach Tracey" calls the Final Countdown on Friday.

The Final Countdown looks more like the quick path to one's final destination.

It starts at the goal line of the practice field with each athlete holding a 45-pound circular weight.

For junior softball player Emily Jolly of Owensboro, the disc is nearly overwhelming.

"The hardest part for me is carrying that plate because the plate is half my body," says the 5-foot-2 Jolly, who alternates holding the massive weight against her chest and carrying it on her back.

During the Final Countdown, the women run from one goal line to the other, drop the weight and do a series of crunches and squat thrusts.

Then they pick up their weight again and race it back to the starting goal line.

Another round of crunches and thrusts follows before the weight is picked back up and raced back 90 yards to the other 10-yard line. This goes on for nearly 30 minutes as each athlete goes back and forth goal line to next targeted marker.

"You see all the cones on the field (marking off the 10 yards) and you are just like, 'All these? We have to do all these?'" says Erin Simon, a 5-foot-7 junior forward on the soccer team.

In all, each player ends up travelling 1,100 yards with her weight before finally dropping it for good and running another 400 yards to the finish.

"Some people cry; some people puke; some people pee their pants, but that's not my goal," Simmons says.

Her goal is to turn the women's sports teams at Kentucky into some of the best in the country.

The morning before the Final Countdown, the same group of women greeted the sun, this time from atop Commonwealth Stadium, where they performed similar grueling routines, only this time with steps instead of weights.

Two mornings before the Commonwealth Stadium adventure, many of these same women were welcomed back to campus with the dreaded "20 in 20" test.

That test involves 20 full-court "suicides" (running drills involving baselines and the lines on a basketball court) within 20 minutes. The drill involves completing five suicides in one minute.

Friday's term "Final Countdown" is quite the misnomer, too.

It's really just the beginning to eight weeks of similar morning workouts to prepare players from basketball, softball, tennis, soccer, volleyball and gymnastics for their upcoming seasons.

"You kind of learn that it all comes down to mental toughness," Jolly says, specifically of the Final Countdown, but easily applying it to the upcoming months. "You've got to push through it even though it sucks, even though you're tired, you've got to get through it because it's going to help you in the end."

Better teammates

The UK strength and conditioning coach says it's not her mission to make athletes miserable. She wants to make them tougher and stronger, more confident.

"I always tell the basketball players, 'You guys hate me now, but you're going to love me in March,'" Simmons says.

By the time basketball season rolls around and the season starts in November, Simmons is sure of one thing. "They will have the confidence that they can run anyone in the country down and wear them out."

There's a competitive portion to the summer workouts. At the end of it, each sport's coach is provided with a chart of how each player finished, not only individually, but also against players from the other participating sports.

"It's a big competition at the end of the summer to see whose team performed the best," says Bria Goss, a sophomore guard on the basketball team. "Also, individually you're competing against other sports. We all push each other and get better."

While the physical payoff is clear by the start of the respective seasons, there's been another less expected payoff.

Players say helping each other get through the grueling summer conditioning makes them better teammates.

Junior forward DeNesha Stallworth, who has dropped 30 pounds since transferring to UK from California last year, said she thought she wasn't going to make it through last summer.

"I didn't throw up," Stallworth says. "But I did almost faint. Seriously thought I was going to faint. The best part of that is I had my teammates there with me the whole way through."

When she's feeling like dropping the massive weight and dropping to her knees during the Final Countdown on Friday, Jolly looks to her left and her right and sees her fellow softball players.

"I think about my teammates and not letting them down," Jolly says. "This stuff is a lot harder than our actual sport. I know if I can get through this and not break down, then when we're on the field, I'll be able to come through for my teammates and not let them down."

The evidence of team building is clear on that Friday morning during the Final Countdown.

Simon, the soccer player, finishes the event ahead of everyone with her time of 20:26. As she's downing water and trying to get feeling back in her extremities, she notices a teammate struggling to finish.

Simon doesn't just urge her teammate on from the finish line, she heads back out onto the course to run the final 200 yards with her.

"We're on a team," Simon says. "You have to put people ahead of yourself. We win together."

The forward's act of kindness is rewarded. Her teammate picks up her head and her speed as she makes her way to the end line.

"Did you see how she finished?" Simon says. "She finished strong. She picked it up when I went out there. A little help goes a really long way."

Sharing success

For Jolly, it is more than just a little help.

The small second baseman gets a lot of help at the end of her race.

Jolly is the last to finish (although she is pleased that her time is more than two minutes faster than the summer before). Other girls cheer for her as they try to catch their own collective breath at the finish line.

Jolly is alone on the football practice field for her final 100 yards when nearly the entire basketball team as well as others rush out to finish the race with her.

Some of them don't even know Jolly, who finishes with a time of 28:51.

But they understand what she is going through.

Sweat beads mix with tears on her flushed cheeks as she runs the final yards with not just her softball teammates, but also her Kentucky teammates.

"That's how it is here," Jolly says with a smile. "We're like a family."

Simmons has seen instances of that camaraderie extending well beyond summer conditioning.

"You look up in the stands in a basketball game and the volleyball girls are there," the coach says. "I go to softball games and the basketball players are there.

"There's a special bond put in place when you're going through that type of stuff together."

As the basketball team advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament last season, there were athletes from every other team on campus watching on television.

They were cheering them on.

"You see them doing well during their season and you feel like you had a small part in that success," says Ashley Frazier, a 6-foot-2 senior outside hitter on the volleyball team. "And you know they had a part in your success."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com, ukwomen.bloginky.com

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