Zak Seddon, Florida State University
On August 6th, 2017 I fulfilled one of my dreams and represented my country at the World Athletics Championships. 5 years earlier, almost to the day, I began my NCAA career at Florida State University (FSU).
I had always wanted to become a professional athlete, so when deciding which path to take after sixth form, whether to the NCAA system, a British university, or an apprenticeship, it’s no surprise my decision was heavily weighted towards somewhere that was going to prepare me for athletics after university. But it wasn’t until I was in the NCAA system, competing for FSU, that I realised just how much I was going to benefit from my experiences.
I was learning how to handle long travel to meets in different time zones, how to handle increased volumes of training, drugs tests, nutrition and weights. Sport in the NCAA is so well funded that universities will treat their athletes the best they can. In many ways you are living the life of a professional athlete, just with schoolwork and classes to attend. So being treated the way we were, we always felt that we were able to reach our potential; a belief that is very powerful, especially when a whole team buys in and supports each other too.
Some of my greatest and most enjoyable races came at our Conference Championships, the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference). I suppose my love for Conference Champs started at my first ACC Champs. I raced at around 9:30pm, long after many of my teammates had finished competing for the day. It was also pouring with rain and there had been a lightning delay (competitions are delayed when there is lightning in the US!). I was expecting a few of my distance teammates to stay and watch, along with a few coaches whilst the rest of the team went home to eat and recover for the next day’s competition. However, when I walked onto the track I couldn’t believe it: my whole team, as well as all the other teams, had stayed to watch and cheer on their athletes. For seven and a half laps there was pretty much non-stop noise and cheering. Conference Championships bring to athletics what is so often missing – the feeling of being part of a team and the team atmosphere. So many times Conference Championships brought us closer as a team, most notably when my roommate came 5th out of 71 competing athletes in a track 5,000m to clinch the title for us. Competing alongside and for my teammates, who would go on to become my best friends, would always help me find that extra little bit when it counted most.
I would also have some bad races too. In fact, calling them bad would be generous – they were horrible. I even dropped out of a races twice, pretty much walking to the finish line. I wasn’t in bad shape or unfit, I was just overwhelmed by the race and the quantity of athletes capable of beating me. So after a few of these races you learn to suck it up and compete well – an attitude that definitely helped me at the World Championships. I was able to forget about everyone else, however fast they were, and concentrate on myself and my own race. If only I knew back then how much it was going to help me in the future. I remember sulking the whole way home wishing I had never signed up for this!
One thing that can usually go unnoticed is the level of competition in the NCAA. It is insane. I had teammates go to the Olympic Games who weren’t finishing in the top 8 at Nationals (NCAAs). Just qualifying for NCAAs is almost as daunting and intense as the Championships itself. The top 48 ranked athletes in both the East and West regions will compete at a Regional Championships, where the top 12 ranked athletes at each meet will earn their place at NCAAs. With the high quality competition and the qualification system set up how it is, it is crucial that you bring your best performance on the day, when it counts. Learning to train specifically for a championships, peaking just at the right time and producing their best performance when it counts is something almost all NCAA athletes will learn, and is an invaluable skill to take forward to the professional ranks.
Medical backup and treatment is the best I have seen. Keeping healthy is a major part of performing well, so we would always be able to get massages, physio, access to anti-gravity treadmills, underwater treadmills, nutritionists, X-rays, orthotics and blood work. You name it, the medical team at FSU (and many other schools) probably had it. This was something I really wasn’t used to before, but now I have left I can see made a huge difference. It’s no wonder so many professional athletes keep their training base at an NCAA university.
I was always trying to get better, and I was racing athletes that were going to help get me there. I knew if I ever did reach the top of the NCAA, the level I would be running at would be good enough to qualify for any major championship.
Since leaving FSU I have taken everything I have learnt with me, and there have been so many times I have been thankful for my experiences. But most of all it’s due to the connections I made and the people I met. Many of my teammates and competitors are still competing, meaning there is usually a friendly face at many competitions. I am very grateful for this, especially at some of the European meets.
I had awful races, awful training sessions, a season long injury and some classes I really didn’t like. There were times when I thought I’d be better just packing my bags and heading home. However, I never truly did want to go home. I loved where I was, the school, teammates and coach I was running for. Choosing to go to the NCAA was the best decision I made for my athletics, academics and everything else in between.