Just before their last race of the indoor season, Amber Eichkorn turned to her running partner Kelsey Barrett and told her, “If you have to, during the race remind me that I’ve already ran two races and I did great in them.”
“Up here she has this big, big goal, and it’s realistic, but she has to tell herself that she can settle sometimes,” Barrett said.
But settling isn’t a word in Eichkorn’s vocabulary.
“The hardest thing for me to do is to tell her to take a day off. She wants to be that consistent,” her distance coach Dan Fitzsimmons said. “We like to say that we preach the concept of moderation and consistency. She’s grasped that concept really well. The downside to that is that there isn’t a lot of down time.”
Eichkorn, a junior originally from Wichita, Kan., who is the first Coyote to qualify for the NCAA Cross Country championships in the fall, began running in middle school.
“I was always a sporty person, so I went out for all the sports,” she said. “Then I found my niche in distance running, because I really couldn’t do anything else. I stopped growing at 5’2, so basketball and volleyball were out of the question.”
Being an upperclassman and an asset to the team, Barrett said it was typical for the athletes to come in and look up to Eichkorn.
“She’s very hard working, and it’s obvious. But she’s never had to make that known — she’s humble, and what I love about her is that she has big goals,” Barrett said. “Even if she’s frustrated after a race I admire it. She’s very disciplined and knows what to expect from herself.”
As a coach, Fitzsimmons can see Eichkorn is a leader for the team who pushes others to do their best.
“Every athlete on our team will tell you she’s a fierce competitor and she knows how to push herself beyond her comfort zone,” he said. “When you have that example running out in front of you, you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I willing to do that myself?’ Fortunately, we’ve had some athletes who have stepped up and are doing the same thing.”
But it’s not just a matter of work that has gotten Eichkorn her numerous successes.
“There are a lot of athletes who go out there and work really hard,” Fitzsimmons said. “You really have to love what you’re doing, because it’s part of who you are. She embraces that.”
Despite running distance well, Eichkorn also appreciates the shorter races, which she said have helped her grow as a runner and improve for the longer races.
“It’s been pretty phenomenal to be able to do what I’ve done,” she said. “Knowing all of the hard work has paid off from the program I got into as a freshman and how much I’ve grown from freshman year to now, if you were to tell me this is what I’ve been doing I probably wouldn’t believe you.”
Eichkorn’s next goals include making an appearance at the outdoor track meet, indoor track meet next year, as well as the cross country meets to keep placing higher and getting her times down.
Fitzsimmons can see her taking her running career even further than that.
“We don’t put a ceiling on our careers. We don’t put a timeline on it either,” he said. “I’ve seen people run well into their 30s and 40s and make Olympic teams. She’s raised the bar around here. I’ve been fortunate enough to coach a lot of blessed runners, and she certainly ranks at the top of the list with a few others.”
That dedication is something her teammates continually look up to.
“Sometimes when I feel like I want to be lazy or skip something, I just remember that Amber would never do that,” Barrett said. “We see her every day — she’s more than someone you see in the media. It’s easy to relate to that and it’s very inspiring.”
(Photo: University of South Dakota distance coach Dan Fitzsimmons called junior Amber Eichkorn a team leader and someone for the younger athletes to look up to. Eichkorn qualified for the NCAA Cross Country Championships to take place in the fall, and was the first Coyote to do so. Cristina Drey / The Volante)