She finished last.
It wasn’t really close either. She finished 76 seconds behind the second-to-last competitor and over 5000 meters that is a significant distance. It’s more significant when it’s at the Foot Locker National Championships, where distances are covered faster than ever as the country’s best harriers all convene for one race each year to decide a champion. It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Emma Brink, though it never is for any qualifier at Foot Locker, yet in crossing that finish line with the slowest time on the day, Brink may have left an equally important mark on the race for many of her fans and peers.
To describe the recent running history of the Sacred Heart Academy (Louisville, KY) senior, is to recount an unblemished regular season of cross-country this fall. Brink does hail from Kentucky, which doesn’t bring to mind many elite distance runners (Bobby Curtis of Villanova and Michael Eaton of Louisville are the individuals of note in the past ten years), but she didn’t hide from competition this fall and ran with an intent to prove her mettle. She traveled to the Trinity Invitational where she easily defeated Sarah Bennett and Renee Wellman of Carmel HS (Carmel, IN) who would go on to finish 3rd and 8th at the Indiana XC State Finals. At the Midwest Meet of Champions (Mason, OH) she took down Indiana State XC Champion Waverly Neer (who went on to finish 14th at Foot Locker), as well as a handful of athletes from among Ohio’s best. It was like that all year for Brink, who took down her two strongest Kentucky rivals in those two races as well (Sayre’s Maddox Patterson and Ryle’s Gabby Gonzales), but there was something more pressing for her on the horizon.
Brink has had a history at Foot Locker South and it hadn’t been particularly pleasant up to this point. As a sophomore, she was
18th overall, less than 20 seconds out of the qualifying spots, after easily claiming the individual cross country state title in Kentucky’s Class AAA for a 2nd time. Last year, she was one of the last individuals out, finishing 13th overall at the regional even though she cut off 16 seconds from the year before and had claimed yet another Kentucky Class AAA state cross country title. So when the season started this year, her focus was very clear. She wasn’t thinking about her other three state cross country championships or her six track and field state titles. She wasn’t focused on her previous All-American performance from Nike Indoor in 2009 (4:55.12 mile) or her lowered PR this year in the mile (4:52.51) and the 800 meters (2:13.26; a new Kentucky state meet record). Brink’s goals were specific: Claim her 4th Kentucky Class AAA XC state title and Qualify for Foot Locker Nationals.
You can see from her credentials that it wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to believe that Brink would finally add a berth to the national championships to her list of running achievements. After checking off her 4th state cross country championship from her to do list in November, Brink turned her full energy and attention towards getting the job done at Foot Locker South. When she found herself amongst the leaders early, her confidence swelled and she continued to hold near Texas’ Rachel Johnson the entirety of the race. (Johnson claimed the NXN title the following week) She found herself in great position at two miles and remembered how little movement there is after that point from year’s past, before finishing 5th overall in 17:25. Relieved and excited about making the trip to San Diego, Brink took some time to share her thoughts and feelings about the experience with Kentucky MileSplit. (https://ky.milesplit.com/articles/56673) She made it a point to state her intentions to represent Kentucky well in San Diego and to note that she has appreciated all the encouragement from her peers within the state. It is something that not every young athlete thinks about, but in Brink’s case it has been a constant for several years.
It’s been no secret in Kentucky that Brink has been the best distance talent in the state and has been in and out of the discussion of the nation’s best specifically in connection with the mile distance. Discussion about Brink’s rightful place among the nation’s elite has become almost a pastime for the sport’s most informed athletes and coaches in Kentucky and Emma has carried the weight of our hopes on her shoulders with much grace. When she claimed All-American honors in 2009, the whole state swelled with pride and hopes were raised to an all-time high with respect to the possibilities for Brink. She only confirmed these hopes as she continued to dominate her competition both on the track and out on the course. Her triple at the 2009 state track and field championships was the kind of stuff that legends are made of, as she clipped off an easy 5:05 for the win in the 1600 meters, battled to a 3-second PR in the 800 meters running 2:13.88, and then ran herself into the ground barely holding off current Vanderbilt athlete Elizabeth Anderson for the win in the 3200 with a time of 11:13.45. It was something that we’d almost come to expect from Brink, but for her to actually go out and do it was almost unthinkable. Surely, now, she’d placed herself in the conversation among the nation’s elite.
Brink followed, though, with a 13th place finish in the mile at New Balance Nationals and we’ve already discussed her 13th place finish at Foot Locker in the fall. A near miss at another All-American spot followed in the spring at Nike Indoor as her 8th place finish put her just a few spots out. After finishing the in-state outdoor season with two more state titles and state meet records in both the 800 and 1600 meters, Brink decided to sit out the outdoor postseason and closed out her season, losing a heartbreaker at the Midwest Distance Gala. The table was set, though, and Brink came into the fall as determined as ever and her qualifying was the sweetest moment yet. Sweeter even, than the moment she committed to run for the North Carolina Tar Heels next fall, and finally a bit of relief that she had made it over the hump and was on her way to San Diego to battle with the best cross country talent in the country.
It wasn’t a storybook ending, though. Brink was less than 100% healthy the day of the race and toiled through the 5k course, running the worst time of her entire cross country career. For those in Kentucky, speculation had been rampant about where she would place and what people might say after they saw how well she performed. After her finish was confirmed, there was more speculation about what could have happened. No one had expected what had unfolded and no one had answers about the race. While all of Kentucky waited to hear through the grapevine what had unfolded, Brink did something completely unexpected and absolutely unnecessary. She logged onto the Kentucky Milesplit site and posted a statement about her performance. (https://ky.milesplit.com/discussion/topics/80998)
She thanked everyone for their support and confidence in her once again. She explained the health issues that she was dealing with on race day and even still at the time of the post. She came right out and stated that she was “thoroughly embarrassed and disappointed” with her performance, even with the virus taking hold of her body at that time. She didn’t mince words as she explained her frustration about the race itself and her brutal honesty will not be forgotten by those who have followed her throughout her entire career.
None of this was necessary by any means, though, and that’s what makes it so unique. As we deal with a society that allows every excuse for every individual when success is not achieved, we are no longer accustomed to such incredible integrity or accountability in society, let alone in our sport. Brink went far above and beyond what was expected and even continued on after her admission to explain all that unfolded during her experience in San Diego for those athletes that may be hoping to achieve the same thing in the future. She gave details on the travel and what she received as well as discussing the athletes she met along the way. It was a statement which showed the incredible character of an incredible athlete and served as an awesome reminder of the way these athletes serve as role models for our future generations.
When we think back to Brink’s accomplishments in the future, this will definitely be one of the most memorable moments in my mind. We can only hope to have more athletes with the type of accountability and integrity that Brink has showed and as she prepares for her final high school seasons indoors and outdoors, it will be with great anticipation that all of Kentucky awaits for Emma to receive all the accolades that she deserves and more. With no knowledge of what is truly in store, though, we will all be pulling for Brink to run with the same confidence and tenacity that has allowed her to achieve all these many accomplishments and support for her will be as high as ever. In truth, her last place finish has revealed that in many ways, she will always be first.