BIRMINGHAM, Ala. –- What? You want me to go where?

Charles Ryan is the head coach of the men’s and women’s track and field teams at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and more than once, he has sat with potential recruits who’ve had that very reaction. See, there’s this thing about the “typical” art student. What’s the best, most tactful way to put this?

Here goes.

Art students can’t be both artistic and athletic.

Go on and think that, but Ryan and the student-athletes of Art U are doing everything they can to kick your butt while you do. Coming into this week’s NCAA Division II Winter National Championships Festival, Art U’s women’s track and field team is No. 1 in the USTFCCCA poll.

That’s after running third to Lincoln and Grand Valley State for much of the season, but a strong showing in the USA Track & Field Indoor Championships this past weekend moved Art U to the top of the heap. Over on the men’s side, redshirt freshmen Shaquille Howard and Johnny Carter are among the runners to beat in the 400-meter dash and long and triple jump, respectively.

Ryan likes the view from up here, and appreciates it all the more because of what his kids have overcome.

“It’s definitely been a very difficult stereotype to overcome,” Ryan began. “When I took over this position three years ago, that was the No. 1 challenge that I had -– just dealing the whole idea that a school like ours would even have an athletic department, let alone have any athletes who would be credible. Even now, with all the attention we have, we still get the question, ‘That school has sports?’”

If nothing else, Art U’s student-athletes run with extra incentive. Here, they no longer have to make a choice between passions -– whatever respective art discipline that interests them and athletics.

Now, the situation has evolved to the point where the school’s track and field program is beginning to speak for itself.

“The truth of the matter is, it’s the level of performance of our athletes on the team currently that is bridging that stereotype,” Ryan said. “Shaquille Howard, this is his freshman season. He was the California state [high school] champion in the 400 meters two years ago. If they don’t know the school, they know Shaq.

“Johnny Carter was a former state champion in high school in California. So if people don’t know the school, they know Johnny. The selling point are these kids and their performances.”

A very good case in point of the choices to be made is senior Vashti Thomas, who began her collegiate career at Texas A&M. She didn’t have a bad experience there, necessarily, but her entire focus was on her career on the track.

What was going to happen after that, though? She transferred to Art U, and this past weekend set a program record of 20 feet, 7.75 inches in the long jump. That, by the way, is tops in DII this year.

“I wanted to be a pro athlete, and that was my main focus,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’ll just go to school for whatever I can do.’ That wasn’t working out, because I wasn’t passionate about what I was learning. It was all one-sided, and that side was track.”

Now, she is studying illustration and graphic design. It suits her, and it suits her well.

“To me, it means a lot,” Thomas added. “I feel like we’re trying to break the norm of people typically thinking, ‘Oh, because you have the artists, you’re not going to do well athletically.’ I feel like we’re breaking new ground here. We’re doing things people never really thought were possible. We’re showing people that you can do both, and you can be really good at it, too.”

Howard’s passion aside from the track is video games, and so he plans to leverage his Art U degree into a career in game design. Madden 2000-whatever … watch out, EA Sports. You’ve got a young man with a career in your company squarely in his sights.

“I’m really into video games,” Howard began. “They have a game-design major [at Art U], so I was like, ‘Okay!’ It’s one of the top schools in the nation for the stuff they do, like game design.”

Carter was all of four or five when he started paying attention to the music being played in his church. He fell in love with it, and now he’s focused on producing and sound design, like Ben Burtt of Star Wars fame. He might also write scores for films, like John Williams of … well … Star Wars fame.

“Music has been part of my life for a long time,” Carter said. “It was really exciting, because I get to do two things that I love. I get to run track and I get to make music. It can’t get any better than that. That’s what caught me by the hook.”
 
“I just feel really blessed. All the glory is to God right now, because He’s opening all these opportunities for me. I can’t describe how happy I am to be in this position, and how thankful and honored I am.”