A runner to remember

In the past few months, Jacqueline M. Wentz ’10 has completed a dizzying journey – from finishing up finals at MIT, where she graduated and double-majored in Physics and Biological Engineering, to competing in the finals of the 3000-meter women’s steeplechase at the USA Track and Field (USATF) National Championships.

Even for one of the best Division III steeplechase runners, the transition to running at an elite, national level was barely on Wentz’s radar. “When I ran a 10:22, I had no clue that it was only two seconds away from the ‘B’ standard for USATF Nationals until a teammate told me. Even when I found out I might qualify, I assumed that if I went, I’d be at the back of the pack and wouldn’t even make finals,” Wentz said. Fresh off her May 28 victory at the NCAA Division III Outdoor Championship, where she set an MIT record of 10:16.16 and raced to the third-fastest Division III time in history, Wentz competed in the steeplechase at the Portland Track Festival on June 11. There, she established a new Division III record by finishing in second place with a time of 10:04.76, good for the “A” standard qualification time for USATF nationals.

Clearly, something had clicked. “As I raced more steeples, I started believing more in myself and realized I could race at USATF nationals and do well,” Wentz said. USATF nationals were a far cry from even the NCAA Championship, though. “[It] was definitely different from other races, just because there were so many great athletes around and there were lots of regulations put in place involving when you had to gather before the races and where you had to go after.”

Wentz’s mental strategy – to prepare for the biggest meet of her career as if it were just another couple of races – paid off. In the preliminary round, she placed fourth in her heat with a time of 10:05.64, which automatically qualified her for the finals as one of the top five finishers.

When the finals rolled around on Sunday, June 27, the Des Moines weather affected the runners’ pace. “The race went out slow for the first lap. No one wanted to lead because it was windy, but after the first lap the pace picked up a lot and became much more challenging to maintain,” Wentz said. Out of the initial clump of runners, Wentz emerged to lead the first lap, her MIT uniform rippling in the breeze. Though she ultimately finished eighth with a time of 10:12.46, Wentz proved that she belonged with the elite American runners. Just five seconds ahead of her was Penn State’s Bridget Franek, the reigning Division I 3000-meter steeplechase champion. The other six runners who recorded faster times were another top Division I competitor; three women sponsored by Nike, New Balance, and Brooks, respectively; and two steeplers who belonged to prestigious post-collegiate running clubs.

Wentz’s results are all the more impressive given her late start in the event. She first started running track as a freshman in high school, but it was not until her sophomore year at MIT that she began running the steeplechase “because it seemed like a fun and different race that I’d be good at.” As a sophomore, she posted a personal best of 11:00.50; as a junior, she improved her time by 13 seconds to 10:47.46 and finished fourth at the 2009 NCAA Division III Outdoor Championship. This year, she shaved off an incredible 43 seconds, overcame an injury that left her wearing a boot at the beginning of the season, booked herself a rewarding trip to the USATF national championships, and earned a spot on the CoSIDA/ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America Second Team.

Yet for all her success, Wentz has kept her focus on her next endeavor – graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. “In Baltimore, I hope to find a team or club that I can run with, although I’m not sure how intensely I plan on training,” she said. Asked if she might consider deferring graduate school for a year to see how far she can ride her steeplechase success, Wentz was quick to dismiss the possibility: “I think I need to do more than just focus on running.” Spoken like a true Academic All-American.

Wentz was profiled in The Tech’s “Senior spotlight: Exceptional student-athletes” tribute in the commencement issue.