May 28, 2014
By Steve Irvine, uabsports.com
The modest credentials that Elinor Kirk carried into UAB have been replaced by lofty accomplishments. Admittedly, she didn't necessarily see it coming.
"I came in with a very open mind, I guess I just wanted to be better than I ever have been," said the native of Swansea, Wales, who came to UAB as a graduate transfer. "I never really thought about anything more. If somebody told me at the beginning of the two years that this is where I was going to be, I really don't know what I would have said. But, in the back of my mind, I would have felt `Oh, they're lying.'"
So what does she say now that she's on the doorstep of competing for NCAA championships in a pair of distance races?
"It has been a bit of a fairy tale," she said with a smile.
The fairy tale is far from over. In fact, the best could be yet to come. Kirk is set to compete in the NCAA East Preliminary Meet, which begins Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla. She will compete in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races, alongside teammate Kate Brown, with a spot in the NCAA Finals on the line.
We'll let the numbers detail her chances of advancing to the NCAA Finals, which are June 11-14 in Eugene, Ore.
Kirk has a national-best time of 32 minutes, 17.05 seconds in the 10,000-meter race. She accomplished that time on April 4 in the Stanford Invitational. It was the only time this season that she participated in a 10,000-meter race.
"Her first ever 10K, to go and run the No. 8 all-time NCAA mark," said Tony Houchin, UAB's head cross country coach and assistant to Kurt Thomas in track and field. "You're like `What's her second one going to be like?'"
She also set a C-USA record in the 1,500 meters during the recent championships when she blazed to a time of 4:15.93, which is 13th best in the nation this season. But she will concentrate on the two longer races moving forward.
That is just a small snapshot of a marvelous two-year run by Kirk.
"This is incredible," Houchin said. "I hope not, but this could be a once in a career kind of kid on the team. You just don't know."
Houchin, who was an assistant coach at UNLV at the time, recruited Kirk following a successful prep career in Wales. She was the Welsh schools senior 1,500 meter champion and senior cross country champion, but she chose to begin work on a medical degree in her home country.
"There is no collegiate athletic system in my country," Kirk said. "I ran but I was just kind of average. Anyone could join the team. Anyone could run. The level is not as high as in the U.S. It's more like a club sport."
However, after earning a degree in Biomedical Sciences, she had the itch to look for an opportunity to run in the United States as a graduate student. She contacted Houchin to gauge UAB's interest. Thomas and Houchin were certainly interested but unsure of what they were getting.
"With her marks in high school, I thought `OK, she's got ability,'" Houchin said. "You don't necessarily know how she's going to progress, you just know that they've got some tools. She hadn't improved her 3K at all and she'd never run a 5K before then. I was like `She's somebody who could come in and significantly help the program.' Now, there is not a single coach in the world who can say they could have predicted this kind of progression. Period."
It was evident quickly, though, that Kirk may have some special ability.
"We had Rhiannon Johns and Sarah Hudak, a conference champion and national championship qualifier," Houchin said. "We had a pretty good group and from day one, Eli kind of jumped in and was right in the mix with two of the best distance runners in UAB history. I was like `OK, she can get in and bang with the best of them.' Then she ended up working her way to the front of that elite group."
Kirk's first year at UAB included a Conference USA Indoor Championship Meet record in the 3,000 meters. She was the high scorer in the event, collecting 26 points. She also became the first UAB runner to eclipse the 16-minute mark in the 5,000 meters, with a mark of 15:59.57 at the NCAA East Regional Championship.
"That was a rough six weeks before that (because of injuries)," Kirk said of her then-school record run in the 5,000 meters. "I had been training but not that much. I thought if I can do that with not as much training then who knows what could happen next year."
What happened was the best season by a distance runner in school history. She was the C-USA champion in cross country and finished 87th out of 254 runners at the NCAA Nationals. Kirk won the indoor mile, 3,000 meter and 5,000 meters in Conference USA and repeated as the meet's high point scorer. She finished third in the 3,000 meters and 10th in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA Indoor Finals to add to her All-America resume. Her outdoor season was highlighted the record-setting 10,000-meter performance at Stanford, which, at the time, was the world's third-fastest time recorded in the event this year.
She'll leave UAB with her name at the top of the record book in nearly every distance race. However, that's just a part of what has been an amazing journey for Kirk, who will return home to continue work on her medical degree. She'll also leave with wonderful memories of two years in Birmingham. She's grown to love Southern barbecue, learned how to handle the humidity and enjoyed sharing the experience with Brown, also a graduate student from the U.K., who arrived at the same time and is Kirk's roommate.
"I really love Birmingham," Kirk said. "I've had a great time and I would definitely recommend the NCAA system to people back at home. You do learn so much, just about yourself. Me and Kate (who is from Surrey, England), neither of us have a car. We kind of had to fend for ourselves. It kind of made us more independent and a bit more self-sufficient."
Before she packs her bags, though, Kirk would love to add a few more memories on the track.