BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -– Alaska-Anchorage head coach Michael Friess has heard it all when it comes to what he calls “the myth.”
Surely, the myth begins, the school’s student-athletes run everywhere in parkas because it’s so dang cold. The state is so far away from the rest of the country. It’s dark all the time.
Friess is only getting started.
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Between all the snow banks, mountains and glaciers everywhere, there’s nowhere to train. It’s an all-out odyssey to even travel to a meet, much less compete in one. That’s where Friess draws the line.
Sure, it’s cold, but it’s cold in many parts of the continental United States. The school has a great training facility and travels to all the same meets as other schools.
Facts are facts. Alaska is, of course, the largest state in the country by far. Over the course of his career, Friess has logged some 800,000 miles on Alaska Airlines and maybe somewhere to the tune of 75,000 miles a year.
That’s no tougher, however, than what many coaches and teams face.
“The thing that we tend to battle the most, more than anything is the myth,” Friess said. “We have ‘Alaska’ on our shirts. It should be ‘Alaska!’ Every time we run against somebody and they see we’re from there, it’s always, ‘Alaska?!?’ You would think after the number of years that we’ve been to meets, they would get used to us.”
This is how different reality is from the myth. Four of the school’s student-athletes who qualified for the NCAA Division II Winter National Championships Festival are from Kenya –- two men and two women. One woman is from Germany. The myth didn’t scare them off.
Drawing student-athletes to Alaska-Anchorage, Friess insists, hasn’t been a hard sell. In fact, he doesn’t have to make much of a pitch at all.
“To be honest, there’s very few kids we reach out to,” said Friess, a native of Anchorage. “They usually send requests to us.”
That’s probably because the school’s results speak for themselves. Although this year’s DII Festival is the first national indoor meet for the SeaWolves, it’s no stranger to outdoor track and field and cross country national championship events.
“They’ve seen us in national results,” Friess continued. “They know we’re friendly to international athletes. We’re accommodating. We’ve got good scholarships. Two of our guys won individual national titles. We’ve got All-Americans all over. It can’t be that bad of a place. Then, when they see our travel schedule and they see our training venue, no, we don’t have any excuses.”
It wasn’t always that way for Friess at Alaska-Anchorage. Now in his 23rd season heading up the track and field and cross country programs, it was less than a decade ago that the sports were officially sanctioned by the school. Before then, running track and cross country was seen as not much more than preseason training for skiing.
Looking back to his humble beginnings at the school, to even be here in Birmingham this week means a lot to Friess.
“When I first started coaching at the university, we had a men’s only cross country team,” he began. “We were by far the worst squad in the region. To see us finally have a program that has both genders in all three sports -– cross country, indoor and outdoor track – it makes me feel good about accomplishments.
“Along the way, we’ve had some outstanding individual performances. But to see our team finally compete is wonderful for the university, wonderful for our athletes and wonderful for the state of Alaska.”