By Andrew Wiebe
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Rebecca Neville has big dreams - representing her country in the Olympics, appearing on Broadway and becoming a reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, to name a few.
Luckily, Neville has a detailed blueprint for herself, an astoundingly ambitious plan for the way her life will play out.
First comes the foundation – four years refining her skills in the diverse track and field disciplines that make her one of the United State’s most promising young pentathletes and heptathletes. Then comes the ground floor – a demanding degree in musical education with an eye towards choral conducting and teaching underprivileged youth.
Needless to say, her blueprint doesn’t include much time for anything outside track, music, God and family.
“I most definitely don’t have a social life,” Neville said.
Only eight months after arriving at the University of Kansas, Neville, a freshman multi-event athlete, is only beginning to travel the long and winding road she’s mapped out for herself. And despite her obvious talents and relentless work ethic, it hasn’t all gone exactly to plan so far.
After successfully auditioning for a spot in Kansas’ musical education program last spring, Neville admitted she was close to dropping out of the program during her first semester because the work load was beginning to overwhelm her. Sandwiched in between 19 credit hours, grueling afternoon track practices drained Neville, leaving her little time or energy to complete coursework and causing her grades to suffer in the process.
“What was sleep?” Neville said. “I didn’t know what sleep was first semester. The music workload is insane. The tedious things like being able to analyze scores and being able to hear something and write it completely on manuscript. It was like ‘You have to be kidding me.’”
But despite her initial struggles, Neville found a way to organize her time to keep herself afloat. She dropped down to 16 hours and kept a running to-do list, detailing what tasks needed to be completed on a daily and weekly basis. She said she also remains cognizant of the fact that if she doesn’t take care of her responsibilities in the classroom, her other passion, track, won’t be there either.
Horizontal jumps coach Wayne Pate, a family friend of the Neville’s from his days coaching at the University of Indiana, said he and the other Kansas coaches try to help Neville stay mentally and physically fresh on the track and in the classroom. Though Pate specializes in the long jump and multi-event athletes, he said he routinely watches Neville’s workouts in other events to be sure he isn’t putting too much strain on her body or mind.
The coaching staff has also developed a day-by-day schedule of specific event work to keep Neville sharp. The heptathlon (outdoor) and pentathlon (indoor) include the 60-meter hurdles, 100-meter hurdles, shot put, long jump, high jump, javelin, 100-, 200- and 800-meter races, leaving Neville little time to concentrate on a single event.
“We have to be very very careful with the number of hours she can do different things,” Pate said. “With what she has to do, there is not enough time in the day. We have to pick and choose certain things on certain days. Music is obviously her outlet away from track and field.”
Ever since she can remember, Neville’s life has been consumed by both music and her athletic endeavors. Her father, David, is the head pastor at the Unity A.M.E. Zion Church in her hometown of Merrillville, Ind., where Neville is also a licensed associate minister. He also coached his children on the AAU and USA circuits from an early age. Predictably, Neville followed in her older brother and sister’s footsteps, singing in church and making waves on the youth track circuit from an early age.
Both her brother, David, a bronze-medal winner in the 400 meters at the Bejing Olympics, and her sister competed for Indiana under the guidance of Pate. After tagging along to practices and meets as a youngster, Neville didn’t waste her first opportunity to compete, excelling immediately and never looking back.
“At five or six, I finally got to run,” Neville said. “My first track meet I did the 100-, 200 meters and the long jump. The 100 was kind of hard for me because it took me a little time to buildup my speed, but in the 200 I beat all the little boys. I was just running, having fun.”
Neville became one of the elite athletes in her age group, finishing her pre-college career ranked as the second-best heptathlete in the nation by Track and Field News. She also competed as a member of Team USA at the Pan American games during her senior year, finishing sixth. All this without possessing the prototypical physical makeup for a multi-event competitor.
“She doesn’t have the body frame that you would think that most heptathletes would have,” Pate said of the 5-foot-6 Neville. “She’s tiny. She isn’t big, but she has a lot of spirit that makes up for a lot. She is a fiery-type person and that can get you far.”
Unsurprisingly, Pate listed Neville’s strengths as the hurdling, running and jumping disciplines. Despite her slight frame, she has made progress in the strength-based events after spending time in the weight room this year.
Pate said he expects her to compete for Big 12 titles and eventually place at the NCAA championships. Neville won the pentathlon at the Jayhawk Classic this season and finished fifth at the Big 12 indoor meet in the event, the only underclassmen in the top five and just nine points off a provisional qualifying score for the NCAA indoor championships.
And although she didn’t place quite as well as she would have hoped, Neville said it’s all part of the blueprint, once partially in doubt and now squarely back on track. She isn’t willing to compromise. Track and music go hand in hand, and she is determined to accomplish her lofty goals in both disciplines.
“If I don’t take care of business,” Neville said, “nobody else is going to take care of it for me.”