Norfolk, VA—This is something that I was the first to do in NSU history and was also featured by the NCAA news. I am currently still in school and will be graduating in December!
Originally published at https://nsuspartans.com/news/2018/12/13/general-can-do-spirit-sustains-three-sport-athlete-tyrika-lee.aspx
Norfolk, VA—Norfolk State track and field sprinter Tyrika Lee has shown steady improvement over her Spartan career. After coming to NSU "running Division II times," as she put it, she gradually ran faster each season before breaking through as a junior last year, qualifying for the NCAA East Preliminary Round in the 100-meter dash.
Which begs the question: with her time consumed by classes, practice, and competition, in a sport where every hundredth of a second could mean the difference in winning or losing, why would she make the bold decision to take up another sport? One she had never played competitively, no less?
The answer lies at least partially with a voice in her head, belonging to her father, Thomas.
"My dad always told me, 'Any talent is worth a million dollars'," Lee said. "You never know if you're good at something until you try."
So with that courageous perspective and a selfless attitude, Lee agreed to join the NSU tennis program last spring. Head tennis coach Darryl Cummings found his team a little short-handed, and he asked Lee and track team manager Nena Greenhouse to help fill out the Spartans' lineup.
Multi-sport athletes in college are rarer than they used to be, but still not uncommon. But two sports within the same athletic season, in this modern age of athlete specialization? It took a leap of faith, and plenty of time management, on Lee's part.
What's more, Lee had never played tennis competitively before.
"I had attended some summer tennis camps when I was younger, but I never really played it before," said Lee. "I played softball in middle school and was on the cheerleading team in high school along with running track. But just because you didn't do something when you were younger, doesn't mean you aren't capable."
Lee credits Cummings and Ana Popovic, who was a senior on last year's tennis team, for helping her transition.
"Coach definitely put all of his trust into us. He said he knew we (she and Greenhouse) didn't really know the process of being college tennis players, but he just wanted us to give our all," Lee said. "Ana really helped me train and was sort of my liaison with my new teammates. She really taught me the ins and outs of the sport."
The highlight of Lee's tennis season was her lone singles victory, a three-set win over an opponent from Maryland Eastern Shore in April that helped the Spartans clinch the win and secure a bid into the MEAC Tournament.
"It was so crazy. All my teammates and coaches surrounded my match and were all by the fence cheering me on," Lee said. "I just couldn't let them down."
Lee also credits tennis with giving her an outlet from the stress that comes with being a collegiate athlete in another sport.
"Last year was probably my most stressful year in track, but tennis was kind of my saving grace," Lee said. "Sometimes if you focus on track 100 percent of the time, you can psyche yourself out and not perform as well."
The physical strain of playing multiple sports within the same season didn't prove to be too big a task for Lee, who estimates she would attend practices in both sports three to four times per week, often going right from the Dick Price Stadium track to the courts at the NSU Tennis Complex a few hundred yards away down Presidential Avenue. Not to mention competitions, class, a part-time job and any free time.
"I have become pretty decent at time management and actually have a part-time job, too," said Lee. "I complete six hours of study hall each week and show up to practices on time, so you could say I am somewhat busy."
As it turned out, her busier schedule coincided with big gains on the track. Just two weeks after tennis season concluded, Lee ran her best-ever times in both the 100 and 200-meter events at the MEAC Outdoor Championships, placing fifth in both. In one final effort to qualify for the NCAA East Preliminary Round in the 100 meters, Lee improved her time again at a last chance meet at Mount Olive College in North Carolina. She dropped her time from 11.55 to 11.52, just enough to earn a bid to the regional meet.
Once there, she set a PR for the third straight meet, 11.47 seconds, good for 28th place out of 48 runners in the region. Not bad for an athlete who admits that three years prior, she was not a Division I runner.
"I was running Division II times coming out of high school and I knew they (her NSU coaches) weren't looking for that," Lee said. "But, they gave me an opportunity and I trusted them and the program."
"I've seen a lot of growth in her over the last three years," said Kenneth Giles, NSU's Director of Track & Field Programs. "From her freshman year when she was unsure of what she could do, to being an NCAA regional qualifier. Coming out of high school, she's progressed from 12.2 (seconds) to 11.4 in the 100 meters and from 25 to a 23 in the 200m. You just don't see that."
But Lee's improbable story of struggling freshman track athlete to confident, blossoming two-sport athlete doesn't end there. Make that, three-sport athlete.
During her rare free time last spring, Lee and some friends went bowling at the Spartan Lanes in the campus student center – unknowingly, just prior to an organized NSU bowling team practice. As Lee's group was asked to give way to the team, head coach Wilhelmenia Harrison watched Lee conclude her game by picking up a tough spare. That attracted the attention of Harrison, who's been known to recruit other talented NSU athletes onto her team in the past.
"When (Harrison) approached me about joining the team, I was sort of hesitant," said Lee. "I didn't know how I was going to balance sports and school."
When bowling tryouts came Lee was, not surprisingly, at track practice. She admitted to forgetting about the bowling tryout, but knew she could not have attended, anyway. A persistent coach Harrison told Lee that she could use her talents, regardless. So come November, due in part to a couple of injuries to NSU's regular bowlers leaving the Spartans short-handed, Lee became the first known three-sport athlete in recent NSU history when she competed at bowling competitions hosted by Virginia Union and Delaware State. Her best score was a 150 in the team's divisional meet at DSU.
So what's next for Lee? She plans to continue this spring with tennis and will take a wait-and-see approach with bowling. And after a well-deserved break for the holidays, her senior indoor track season gets underway Jan. 11 with a meet at Virginia Tech. Her goals?
"Faster times and better rankings," Lee said matter-of-factly. "And to do better this year at the NCAA East Preliminary. Our new assistant coach (Garfield Ellenwood) is talking to me about running some crazy-fast times, like 22.9 in the 200 and 11.2 in the 100 meters, and making the Olympic Trials in 2020. We'll see how it goes."
Lee didn't seem daunted by those goals. And after taking up two new sports in college, why would she?
"If you get recruited for one sport, the stigma out there is you just spend all your time focusing on that," Lee said. "But really, all sports tie in somehow. If you can do it mentally, you can do it physically."