Time, the medium in which all runners flourish or fail, is especially precious to Villanova senior Becky Spies. "This is going to be kind of a hectic week," Spies (rhymes with knees) said one afternoon as she nursed a cup of cocoa in the campus student center. "I'm going to Georgetown [for a medical school interview], Boston [for a track meet], Florida [another meet] and then back up to Boston [to interview at Harvard Medical School]."
Indeed, Spies's four years at Villanova have been a marvel of organization and stamina. The 21-year-old has successfully stitched her disparate interests together into an impressive quilt. While training twice a day, earning All-America honors four times, double-majoring in biology and philosophy, and maintaining a 3.86 GPA, Spies has also worked in soup kitchens and counseled fellow undergraduates about AIDS.
Last fall she applied to 19 medical schools and finished third in the NCAA cross-country championships, helping the Wildcat women win their sixth consecutive national title. In December she became the second student in school history to win a Rhodes scholarship. The first was her former teammate Nnenna Lynch, the 1992 NCAA 3,000-meter outdoor champion.
The youngest of three, Spies played soccer as a child. She took up running at age eight, after tagging along to a track meet in Livermore, Calif., her hometown, with her older brother, Brennan. At first she was a social runner, less likely to win a race than to miss its start because she was yakking when the gun went off. After suffering a stress fracture in her left shin in the eighth grade, she gave up soccer and quickly became one of the nation's best high school distance runners. Inspired by her older sister, Jessica, who won a track scholarship to Stanford, Spies competed with the goal of doing likewise, to ease the financial burden on her parents, Robert, a marine biologist, and Ann, a fourth-grade teacher.
By her senior year at Livermore High, Track & Field News ranked her first among the country's schoolgirl outdoor milers. She ran well—and often—during the summer after graduation, winning the 1,500 meters at the junior nationals in June 1990 and finishing second in that event at the Junior Pan-American Games in August. By the time she got to Villanova, she was burned out. She put on 20 pounds that fall and didn't make the cross-country team that was sent to the NCAAs. In her first collegiate track meet the following January, she ran the 800 in 2:21.3. "I hadn't run that slowly since eighth grade," she says.
Blood tests showed she had mononucleosis. Spies, who hadn't realized she was sick, had to take a monthlong break, then reinvent herself as a runner.
Marty Stern, who resigned as Villanova's coach last year, predicts Spies will continue improving and someday compete in the 1,500 meters at the Olympics. First, though, there's Oxford, which won't be all tea and crumpets. "A lot of people term [winning a Rhodes] an achievement," says Spies, who plans to study comparative social research and attend medical school later. "I look at it as a chance to see what you can make of two years at Oxford. Life doesn't stop with a Rhodes."
The distance runner will find new roads to follow at Oxford.