Vassar Stories

Kudos to All-American Taylor Vann ’16

The winner of the decathlon at the Olympic Games is traditionally awarded the informal title, “World’s Greatest Athlete.” If that’s a valid description, Taylor Vann ’16 can certainly be considered one of Vassar’s greatest athletes. He became the first member of the men’s track team to earn All-American status this spring, finishing fifth in the decathlon competition at the NCAA Division III Track and Field Championships.

Decathlete Taylor Vann ’16 placed 5th in the NCAA Division III Track and Field Championship, becoming Vassar’s third All American this year and the first ever on the men’s track team. Photo: Stockton Photo Inc.

Vann, an environmental studies major from Coventry, CT, finished the grueling, two-day, 10-event competition at Wartburg College in Waverly, IA, on his 22nd birthday, the day before Vassar Commencement. He won the first event, the 100-meter dash, but with just two events remaining, Vann was in 10th place, and only the top eight finishers would be named All-Americans. Vann responded by winning the javelin throw and then finishing first in the 1,500-meter run, eclipsing his best time by nearly 11 seconds.

A week later, Vann reflected on his achievement. “I’m beginning to realize it’s not the title that’s important, it’s the experience,” he says. “Learning what I’m capable of doing will help me in many other ways for the rest of my life.”

Competing in the decathlon on the national level was a goal Vann and his coaches, Justin Harris and James McCowan ’99, had talked about soon after he joined the track team. A soccer, basketball, and track star in high school, Vann finished 12th in the decathlon at a statewide competition during his senior year. But by the end of his first year at Vassar, he knew he still had a lot of work to do to excel on the collegiate level.

The 1,500-meter run

“After my freshman year, I practiced throwing the discus on my own all summer,” Vann recalls. “I took hundreds of videos of myself and I saw virtually no improvement. Throwing the discus as hard as you can isn’t enough; you have to have the right technique, and I didn’t have it.”

McCowan and Harris worked with Vann on his technique in all 10 events during his sophomore year, and they saw enough improvement to know he had a legitimate chance to compete in the NCAA championships by his junior year. “Taylor was always strong in the running and jumping events, and he improved in the other events because he worked so hard,” McCowan says.

Harris agreed. “I saw his times in his running and jumping events when he came to Vassar and there was nothing there that jumped out at you and said, ‘All-American,’” he says. “But nobody on the team worked harder than Taylor.”

By his junior year, McCowan says, he was convinced Vann had improved sufficiently to compete in the national championships. But a sprained ankle derailed his plans. Competing in the Eastern College Athletic Conference meet in the spring of 2015, Vann finished with the 33rd-best score in the nation among Division III decathletes. The performance wasn’t good enough to qualify for the NCAAs, but McCowan says it proved to him that Vann had what it would take to compete for All-American status as a senior. “Taylor was on crutches three days before that ECAC meet,” he says. “We knew he had the skill, but just as important, we saw he had the grit to compete in such a grueling event.”

The javelin throw

This year, Vann posted one of the best scores in the country at a meet in April at Connecticut College, so he had plenty of time to prepare, both mentally and physically, for the national competition. And as this year’s NCAA competition approached, Harris said he was confident Vann had the all-around skill to compete with the best athletes in the country. “I honestly didn’t think Taylor would win a single event,” the coach says. “Then he went out and won the very first one.”

Harris says he thinks it’s fitting that a decathlete is the first member of the men’s track team to become an All-American. “Vassar is all about a liberal arts education. It’s about diversity of knowledge, a wide range of disciplines, and the decathlon is the same thing in the track and field world,” he says. “If you can excel on all of those levels, then anything is possible. In Vassar’s culture, athletics are here to prepare our students for the real world, to be creative problem solvers, and Taylor is the standard bearer for all of that.”

Vann, who began his post-Vassar career as a legal assistant at a New York City law firm about 10 days after he graduated, says his achievement in the decathlon taught him many life lessons. “It taught me how to focus; there are 10 events, but you have to approach them one at a time. And it’s not about winning every time. It’s about trying your best at everything.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted Friday, June 3, 2016