The starting blocks confounded Kendall Spencer. So on that warm spring day – unusually hot, actually, for late spring in northern California – he spotted a man on the track with a starter pistol and figured he must be in charge.
“I have no idea what these blocks are for,” Spencer remembered telling the man at the starting line of the 100-meter dash. “I don’t know how to use them. Can I move them?”
The official looked at the high school junior, Spencer recalled, “like I was from another planet.” But then he replied: “Yeah, sure.”
The lack of blocks wasn’t the only thing separating Spencer from the other runners lined up for the sprint. He wore distance spikes, unaware that different races call for different footwear, and baggy shorts. (“I was so new I didn’t understand Spandex,” he recalled.) And at the race’s start, he folded his body into the only pose from which he had been trained to charge ahead with power and aggression: the three-point stance.
And yet, the first-time runner passed the field at the elite northern California private-school invitational at the 50-meter mark, then kept bolting to his first 100-meter win.
Days earlier, Spencer had been working out on the track field, preparing for his senior football season, when the track coach approached and asked him to fill in for an injured runner on a 400-meter relay team.
The team won that event at the invitational with Spencer as its anchor. And then, with just this advice from the coach, Spencer also won the long jump:
Run and jump, the coach said, and don’t go over the white line.
Spencer, now a graduate student, knows all about running toward the unknown. After discovering his natural talent at the end of his junior year in high school, he careened into the recruiting network of Division I schools, landing at New Mexico – a popular year-round training place for Olympic-bound athletes.
He remembers his dad laughing on the plane when they visited New Mexico. The desert, vast and vacant, stretches out around Albuquerque – a stark contrast to the lushness of home. “You look down,” his dad remarked on the descent, “and all you see is brown.”
The desert mountains touched Kendall Spencer, who grew up in Foster City, California, just outside San Francisco. But not every step he has taken in New Mexico has been easy: He battled a hamstring injury that kept him out of competition for portions of his first two years of college.
Still, at every turn, he embraced opportunity. Today, Spencer is the national chair of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, the seat that will have a vote on the division’s redesigned Board of Directors if the proposed governance structure is approved by the membership in August. He is spending the summer at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, department of psychological and brain sciences, working with Rebecca Spencer, an assistant professor and faculty athletics representative, and pursuing his interest in cognitive neuroscience.
And that hamstring injury that sidelined him? Spencer came back to become the 2012 indoor national champion long jumper.
At every stage of every project, Spencer, quite simply, just jumps in. “The worst thing that can happen is someone can say no. Or you give something your best shot, and it just doesn’t work out,” Spencer said. “But I never grew up wanting to limit myself.”
Spencer’s up-close look at the NCAA has stirred his passion for helping student-athletes not only while he is one of them, but as a career.
“The past 18 months have brought to my attention the need for research in the area of traumatic brain injury,” Spencer said. “A few years from now, I hope to be a neuroscientist who’s helping to improve the lives of student-athletes.”
Kent Kiehl, the executive science officer at New Mexico’s Mind Research Network, recalled the day he heard from an earnest, energetic student-athlete who wanted to know more about his work. The lab has launched a new program that provides MRIs for New Mexico student-athletes in contact sports; this year, Spencer spent some time each week in the lab.
“He explained his interest and that he’s been involved in NCAA athletics,” Kiehl said. “I was extremely impressed with him; he’s a very, very grounded kid. I offered him a job on the spot.”
In his SAAC leadership role, Spencer wants to encourage student-athletes around the country to embrace the opportunities they have to be part of the decision-making process. On some campuses, SAAC remains mostly a social organization. It doesn’t have to be that way, he said.
Recently, Spencer attended the Mountain West Conference presidents meeting for the first time.
“His thoughtfulness, his passion for relating the student-athlete experience to the university is really unusual,” said Robert G. Frank, the university president at New Mexico who was also a swimmer there as an undergraduate. “He really thinks through how a student-athlete needs to integrate to the university.”
Spencer was invited to the high-level meeting, Frank said, simply because he asked to go, and took the opportunity – not unlike his reaction when a high school track coach asked for a favor.
“Had I not been there on that day, filling in for a friend,” Spencer said, “who knows how different my life would have been?”
On Location at the University of New Mexico
Even the school colors at the oldest state university in New Mexico remind Lobos of the connection between their campus and its environs. The colors are silver and cherry. The vibrant red is meant to mimic the hue of the nearby Sandia Mountains at dusk. (Sandia means watermelon in Spanish.) The silver is intended to remind of the Rio Grande, though today the once-grand river – stricken by drought and the demands of modern society – is threatened and less shimmery.
And in another nod to New Mexican heritage, a third color, turquoise, was integrated into the school colors in the 1970s. The color is frequently washed over the region’s front doors, a practice residents historically believed brought good luck. Today the Lobos occasionally revive the turquoise for special occasions.
Founded in 1889 while New Mexico was part of the United States’ New Mexico Territory, the university is older than New Mexico itself, which earned statehood in 1912. University President Robert G. Frank, who received all three of his degrees from New Mexico, describes his home state’s unique culture as “a world that is not very much appreciated.”
“We are such a complex place,” Frank said. “There are all these various groups here, and all these groups come together to create what is New Mexico. You literally have to come here to experience and understand it. Words are woefully inadequate to explain New Mexico between the physical beauty of the place and the distinct culture that come together.”
Frank sees science and art as “two huge pillars” of the university. Given the expansive research facilities located in the state and the thriving art scene of the Southwest, science and the humanities collaborate naturally at New Mexico, with a third focus – business – acting as, in Frank’s words, “an entrepreneurial link between them.”