In a sport that’s as mental as it is physical, the junior Converse College runner is a double major in theater and psychology. That combination has produced a physically gifted athlete with the gumption and mental wherewithal to push herself to become the most decorated runner in Converse history.
Sutherland competed at the 2013 NCAA Division II Cross Country championships in Spokane, Wash. That achievement made her the first cross country runner to represent the Valkyries at nationals.
“The feeling that I get on the start line of a race is very similar to the feeling that I get when I step out on stage. It’s this rapid heartbeat and adrenaline rush.”
This year, Sutherland earned a provisional qualifying time in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, making her the first track athlete to qualify for nationals. She also holds numerous school records in a variety of races.
It’s an impressive running resume, particularly for someone who wasn’t always interested in running.
“I did competitive cheerleading at my high school,” said Sutherland, a Gaffney High product. “I just found that I liked running laps for punishment better than cheerleading.”
That punishment for cheerleading mistakes led Sutherland to start competing on the track team in 10th grade. It was a sport her father, a former collegiate runner, was familiar with, but certainly not something that was compulsory.
“I started practicing by running up and down my street because I didn’t want to go out there and be the slowest runner,” Sutherland said. “My dad just watched me and said, ‘Ashly, you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be a runner.’
“I guess he thought that I was doing it to please him or to be like him. I said, ‘No dad, I just want to try this.’ And to this day, my parents still tell me that I don’t have to do it and that I can quit anytime I want.”
That kind of family support also allowed Sutherland to pursue her off-the-field activities with similar temerity.
“I’ve been doing theater since I was in elementary school. I started out being a shy kid,” she said. “In middle school I started auditioning for roles and really getting into it. In high school I was in the drama club and doing advanced acting classes. I was even auditioning at acting schools and I got into a few of them.”
Fortunately for the Valkyries, she opted to come to Converse. Sutherland auditioned at the school’s theater program and received a scholarship. She also chose to study psychology.
Though she may have stumbled into running almost by accident, Sutherland’s success is no fluke. Even early in her running career, the similarities between running and acting were apparent.
“They’re both very performative. When you think about it, I’m in front of an audience in both arenas,” she said. “The feeling that I get on the start line of a race is very similar to the feeling that I get when I step out on stage. It’s this rapid heartbeat and adrenaline rush.”
“I’ve learned that if I don’t keep a positive mindset, then I’m not going to succeed…Instead of just focusing on what I could’ve done, what did I do and how do I improve on that?”
As a mid-distance runner, Sutherland’s familiarity with performance, drama and mental fortitude is especially advantageous.
Sutherland’s forte, the 800, 1,500, 3,000 and 6,000 meters, are long enough races to establish narratives. Each runner goes out with a race strategy and those conflicting approaches play out as the athletes jockey for position. It’s as if the musicians of an orchestra each opted to play the same song at their preferred tempo. In the cacophony of these mid-distance races, it’s easy for runners to go off script or lose focus.
“I’m not going to adlib or improv on stage something we haven’t practiced or talked about,” Sutherland said. “I’m good at making stuff up on the spot, but hopefully not in races.”
Sticking to her pre-race strategy is easier said than done in the heat of the moment or after a disappointment.
“I’m a very emotional runner,” Sutherland said. “A lot of times when I’m on the line or running a race or on a really long run, I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to positively reinforce myself after this run to make me love running more?’
“I’ve had some really great times and really terrible times where I’ve been very low on myself,” she added. “I’ve learned that if I don’t keep a positive mindset, then I’m not going to succeed. My coach is really helping me with this too, trying to put things in a positive light. Instead of just focusing on what I could’ve done, what did I do and how do I improve on that? It’s the same thing with acting. Maybe I didn’t get the role I wanted, maybe I wasn’t the lead, but I’m still in the production. I’m still in the field that I love being a part of.”
Whether it’s B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, Shakespeare’s stagecraft or a sprint to the finish line, Converse couldn’t ask for a better student-athlete representative.
In addition to her athletic accolades, Sutherland has been named to the Conference Carolinas All-Academic Team twice and was recently honored as the conference’s Fall Scholar Athlete of the Year. She’s also participating in a work-study program researching the history of Converse athletics. It’s a history she’s not done finished writing.
“I want to go to the national meet in either the 1,500 meter or steeplechase,” she said.
Sutherland earned a provisional qualifying time in the 3,000-meter steeplechase earlier in the season and continued to dominate that event at the Conference Carolinas championships in Banner Elk, N.C., where she won the steeplechase and broke the conference record by 14 seconds on Friday. On Saturday, she won the 800 and 1,500-meter races. Since the races were run at altitude, there is a possibility that her adjusted times could qualify her for nationals. She missed the 800-meter provisional qualifying time by just over one second.
A few weeks ago, Sutherland missed the provisional qualifying mark in the 1,500 by less than a tenth of a second. Being that tantalizingly close, Sutherland plans to run in what she calls “a bunch of last chance meets” in order to get a qualifying time. If she succeeds, she will be the first Converse athlete to qualify for nationals in two events in the same season.
As a junior, she’s far from any kind of last chance.
“Next year hopefully I’ll go to nationals again in cross country and then in track maybe be an All-American or win a national championship. I want to be positive. If it doesn’t happen, that’s OK, but I’m going to give myself goals so I can continue to challenge myself.”
This article was written by Dantzler Smith and republished with permission from the Spartanburg Herald-Journal