Aubree Piepmeier ’14 caps her Vassar career with All-America honors
Four days before her first outdoor track meet of the year, distance runner Aubree Piepmeier ’14 decided to go for an early morning run. Not long after she had begun this familiar jog just off the Vassar campus, she tripped and fell on the sidewalk, opening a gash in her knee that required a visit to the emergency room. When head track coach James McCowan heard what had happened, he feared one of his top performers might be sidelined for a while. “Aubree needed four stitches, and we were wondering how long she’d be out of commission,” McCowan recalls.
Not long at all, as it turned out: Piepmeier competed that weekend against 23 other runners from 12 other schools in the 1,500-meter run at Monmouth (N.J.) University. “She obliterated the field,” the coach says.
No one who has followed Piepmeier’s athletic career at Vassar should have been surprised.  Friendly and outgoing off the track and a fierce competitor on it, she’s been overcoming obstacles and setting standards for excellence since her freshman year.
A three-time all-Seven Sisters and all-Liberty League cross country and track performer, Piepmeier established herself as one of the best NCAA Division III distance runners in the East, posting some of the best times in the country in the 5,000-meter run and finishing second in the 1,500 at the Eastern College Athletic Association (ECAC) outdoor track championships. At Vassar’s sports banquet, McCowan presented Piepmeier with the 2014 Frances Fergusson Coaches Award, recognizing her leadership and character as well as her athletic accomplishments.
Piepmeier saved her most impressive accomplishment for last. She earned All-America honors, posting the fastest time of her career and finishing fifth in the 5,000 at the NCAA Division III track championships at Ohio Wesleyan University on May 24 – less than 24 hours before she received her Vassar diploma. She calls becoming an All-American a perfect way to cap her collegiate career.
“It was definitely a competitive race, a very fast clip and a hotter day than we’d raced most of the year,” Piepemeier says. “I kept picturing success all week leading up to the race, but I wanted to actually see it and I did.”
Piepemeer was in 10th place with less than a mile to go but finished with a strong kick and passed five other runners to ensure her spot in the top eight and gain All-American status. “For Aubree, a lot of it was learning how to be successful, and she knows that now,” McCowan says. “There are two things every successful runner needs: an engine and desire. A lot of runners have an engine and a lot have huge desire. Aubree has both.”
McCowan says he’s just as proud of Piepmeier for what she meant to the team as he is of what she accomplished on the track. “As a coach, I can do a lot of talking, but it’s just talk,” he says. “What helps us succeed as a team is modeled behavior, and Aubree provided that. She is stoic and stone-faced before and during a race, but in practice she has fun and fools around and gets laughs from her teammates. But when it’s time to work, she shifts those gears, and the rest of the team learns from her.”
Piepmeier’s teammates agree. “I love to watch Aubree run,” says sprinter Ariel Bridges ’15. “My races are all about bursts of speed, but she needs to think out there and it’s great to see that intensity and concentration on her face.”
Bridges, who was named the top performer at the 2014 Liberty League Track Championships, says Piepemeier has been one of her role models since she arrived at Vassar. “When I was a freshman and she was a sophomore, she was already one of the leaders of the team – an elite runner and someone we could all look up to,” she says.
Team captain Heather Ingraham ’15, who won All-American honors in the 400-meter run, finishing fourth at the NCAA championships, says she’s not sure she could have done it without Piepmeier.
“Aubree’s an inspiration to all of us,” Ingraham says. “You see all the extra time she puts in, the dedication she has to her training, and it affects you. She sets the tone, sets the standard for the team with how hard she works.”
Piepmeier says she enjoys the camaraderie that comes with being on the cross country and track teams, but she also loves the solitary, cerebral aspect of distance running. “I’ve been running for so long that a lot of how and when I react in a race isn’t entirely conscious,” she says. “You learn by repetition when to make your moves in a race.”
Some of that learning can be painful. Piepmeier says she often recalls the 1,500 meters she ran in the Liberty League championships in her sophomore year. “It was windy, and I decided with two laps to go to make a move past a faster runner from St. Lawrence. For starters, it isn’t a good idea to be out in the lead for a long time on a windy track,” Piepmeier says, “and second, I gave that runner from St. Lawrence plenty of time to react to my move, and she beat me.”
She says she tries to learn from every mistake but she’s also learned not to dwell on them. She set a goal for the season to become an All-American, “and part of that process is not over-hyping any one race and just let your training program lead you there.”
And unlike many athletes, Peipemeier says she’s not superstitious at all: “I like to feel I’m in control of what happens on the track and it has nothing to do with what socks I’m wearing or the ribbon in my hair.”
A religion and political science double major from Franklin, MA, who has earned Academic All-America honors, Piepmeier says she’s learned to balance her time between her studies and her time on the track. “There’s a lot of planning involved,” she says. “My senior project (on novelist C.S. Lewis) was due the same weekend as the Penn Relays. But you learn to organize your time. It’s all inter-related. Track is a nice break from school work, and school work is a nice break from track.”
In his speech before he presented Piepmeier with the Fergusson Award, McCowan called her “the best of what Vassar has to offer.”
“She inspires us, all of us, to be better, to try harder, and to do so with unwavering commitment,” the coach says. “She makes us all better just by being herself.”
Posted Wednesday, June 4, 2014