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Maximizing Performance as a Student-Athlete

David McNeill

2011 BS in Exercise Science

Hometown: Melbourne, Australia


David McNeill is literally one of the best long-distance runners in the world. Earlier this season, the Northern Arizona University runner won the national championship in the 5,000-meter indoor run, and finished runner-up in the 3,000-meter run. A native of Melbourne, Australia, McNeill was recently selected to represent his home country in the Commonwealth Games, which is the third-largest multi-sport event in the world, after the Summer Olympic Games and the Asian Games. Building on this, McNeill has an excellent shot of making the 2012 Australian Olympic team. His successes, he says, have all followed a difficult decision he made four years ago: he wanted to be a student and an athlete, but couldn't do both in Australia. So he packed his bags for Flagstaff.

"In Australia, they don't have an integrated university and sporting system, so essentially they are two separate things," McNeill says. "In terms of combining the two, it was very difficult. The opportunities to travel and compete against the best were also lacking. I didn't know much about the U.S., so I hesitated before I decided to come here. After I made the choice to come, I haven't looked back. It was a really good decision."

According to McNeill, one of the best parts about coming to Flagstaff was the opportunity to maximize his performance as both a student and an athlete. His teammates, coaches, and the opportunity to train at altitude have delivered great benefits to him as a runner, he says. Equally important to McNeill, though, is the emphasis on academics.

"Coming to NAU, where I can study and run, I have coaches that understand my school commitments and teachers who understand my sporting commitments," says McNeill. "There is just a good balance."

As a student, McNeill has excelled, earning a cumulative 3.75 GPA as an exercise science student: last year, he was recognized by ESPN The Magazine as an Academic All-American. But on the track, McNeill has elevated himself far beyond his peers. The key to his success, he says, certainly depends on being physically prepared. For McNeill, though, mental preparation is a critical component to succeeding as a distance runner.

"Confidence is important going into a race—you need to have confidence in what you have done to prepare, and in the goals you have set," he says. "You have to have confidence in the goals that you set, and then focus on keeping those goals in mind. Relaxation is important as well. When you are relaxed, the confidence has somewhere to go."

According to McNeill, the support of his mentors at the university has been key to building his confidence, both in and out of the classroom.

"Coach (Eric) Heins, the team coach, plays a big role in preparing me physically and mentally," says McNeill. "I think a measure of a good coach is someone that you could consider a friend, and that is how I see Coach Heins. In the classroom, (exercise science professor) Dr. (James) Baldi is someone that has given me a wealth of confidence and a belief in what I am capable of academically. The future is always a daunting prospect, so to have someone that is aware of my particular need to plan out the future—it has been good to have people like him around."

No matter what the future holds for him, McNeill says that his time as a student-athlete has been life-changing. As he looks toward graduation—and toward a possible Olympics berth in 2012—McNeill hopes to remain in his adopted home for just a bit longer.

"I hope that once I do graduate I will have the opportunity to stay around for another few years leading up to the London Olympics, and continue to be involved with Coach Heins and the team," he says. "I would also like to become involved with some of the other runners in Flagstaff, and continue to broaden my experiences here."