In late July, nine student-athletes -- Bria Goss (women's basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann (men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald (women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton (rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) -- participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns sharing their experiences through a series of blog entries. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
Today, Jared Philips writes about the group's arrival in Ethiopia.
By Jared Phillips
Today's the day. We are traveling to Ethiopia! Our team got up early and headed to the airport where waiting in lines, flight delays and confiscation of necessary items at security awaited us. However, we were all incredibly excited for this trip, so these events were merely slight bumps in the road.
We boarded our nearly 13-hour flight to Addis Ababa shortly after noon in Washington, D.C., and finally touched down on a cloudy, cool morning at Bole International Airport at roughly 9:30 a.m. local time. Our team's exhaustion quickly turned into exhilaration after landing in what was a novel experience for all of us but Jason (Schlafer, the senior associate athletic director accompanying student-athletes): Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Made it safely to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with a full day ahead of us! #UKtoEthiopia
Surprisingly quickly, we made it through customs, picked up our baggage, and walked out of the terminal. I got a taste of how kind the Ethiopian people are when a lady stopped me as our team was leaving the terminal and personally welcomed me to Addis Ababa; it was rather touching to see someone as welcoming as she was. As soon as we were outside, we were in awe what was before us: a mixture of nature and urban life stretching for miles and miles. The weather was nice and cool compared to Lexington, and the mass of cars in the airport parking lot awaited us. We met up with Mark, who would be leading us around to the various places on the trip, and Nikki, our photographer for the week and departed for our guesthouse.
Immediately, our group got to witness the poverty and crowdedness that characterize the cities of third-world countries. People were everywhere: walking in the streets, begging and trying to sell numerous goods, and crammed into blue and white vans that served as taxis for the city. Upscale buildings stood next to tiny tin shacks, and rudimentary slabs of concrete under construction littered the landscape before us. The traffic was organized chaos, as cars, trucks, and vans would come and go with not a stop sign or traffic light in sight. We arrived at the Addis Guesthouse, across from a field where tents of cloth, towels, and mud sprung up from the ground. We met two of the local guys that would be assisting us this week, Girma and Wario, who dropped our luggage off in our rooms, and we soon departed for our first visit.
As our driver navigated through the Addis traffic, Mark explained to us that the neighborhood we would visit is mainly occupied by widows and their children, and that we would be giving them bags of coffee and sugar and mattresses, complete with sheets and a blanket. We arrived outside a community center and made our way in through a metal gate with barbed wire, a common scene in Addis. What happened next absolutely floored me. As soon as the widows and children saw us, they welcomed us with such warmth and love, peppering us with hugs and kisses. The joy evident on their faces was contagious. After a few hugs, I could not help but beam with joy simply being in their presence.
We hastily made our way into the community center where everyone sat in a circle and each member of our team was introduced to much applause. The women sang worship songs with clapping and rejoicing, and even though none of our group could understand what was being sung, it was a pretty neat experience. Several women then proceeded to share their testimony of how their sponsorship through the program that Mark is in charge of has completely changed their lives by giving them food to eat and providing for their children's healthcare and education. In everything these women thanked God for what they had, and it struck a chord with me: I complain about my phone being slow sometimes, yet these women are so thankful for the very little they have. Such incredible conviction.
Afterward, we handed out bags of coffee and sugar to these women, who thanked us profusely for them. We also managed to give out mattresses and sheets to the women who needed replacements. We then got to spend time with one another, meeting each other and playing with the kids. One woman, Tonga, pulled me aside and continued to thank the group and me for coming to visit them and eagerly introduced me to her daughter. She kept telling me how we were such a blessing to them and how grateful she was for the things we handed out. Although it felt good to provide for these people's physical needs, I was humbled by her gratitude and thankful to her for how loving and gracious the hearts of the widows are. I got the joy of hanging out with some of these kids and seeing their faces light up when Montana handed out some chocolate.
Two of these children I will remember forever: Biniyam, a 13-year-old boy, and Doriba, his 10-year-old sister. We bonded immediately and Haley and I got to carry their mattress back to their house. It was fantastic seeing these children who had nearly nothing, yet were so joyful and free of burdens. Walking through the neighborhood, we saw some houses that were pretty decent for their standards, but as we got closer we saw things for what they were. In the garages and backyards of these people, we saw widows and children in makeshift homes. Once we reached Biniyam's home, he invited us inside and showed us around. The house was no bigger than my bedroom at the guesthouse, yet they kept saying how big it was and were so proud of their belongings. These people are so thankful for the very little they have, and I was yet again floored at their attitude; we may have comfort in America, but the joy that these people have is a treasure very much worth looking for and guarding with your life.
We returned to the community center from Biniyam's house for a lunch of fried egg sandwiches and sodas, then left to go deliver laptops to some of Mark's friends and pick up supplies for his children. The area we were in, as Wario noted, is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Addis, yet it was not exactly middle-class America. Even something as subtle as being in a nice area of Addis rocked me. It was continued evidence that comfort and possessions do not equal joy, and possibly the absence of comfort and possessions (or the absence of finding your value in these things) contributes to the joy that people have.
Once we dropped off the laptops, we left to go exchange our American dollars for Ethiopian birr and we stopped by the "Starbucks of Ethiopia:" Kaldi's Coffee. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my coffee and I'm a big fan of the local coffee shops we have in Lexington, but nothing has come close to what I had today. The coffee is so rich that it doesn't need any creamer, sugar or anything fancy. These Ethiopians know their coffee! After the coffee shop, we returned to the guesthouse to eat dinner and retire for the night, exhausted after a long yet rewarding day in Addis Ababa.
The University of Kentucky Athletics Department has obviously enjoyed one of its best seasons in history across all sports. Recent news has confirmed that the Wildcats are also enjoying tremendous success in the classroom.
At the heart of that success has been UK's innovative and nationally renowned Center for Academic and Tutorial Services.
One staff member at CATS has recently raked in a number of prestigious honors for his hard work, and the Wildcats' subsequent academic success.
The awards have gone to someone staff members across the UK Athletics Department couldn't consider more deserving.
With the renown, the praise for Mike Pirrman has now extended beyond UK to multiple academic advising professional organizations.
"Mike Pirrman is an incredibly caring person who puts the well-being of the student-athletes he advises above all else," Associate Athletics Director for Student Services Bob Bradley said. "Mike realizes that someday their athletic exploits will come to an end and that the quality of their educational experience will be of utmost importance to their future success. He takes their post-college quality of life very serious."
Pirrman, who serves as academic advisor for six teams within the cross country/track and field program, was honored earlier this semester as the recipient of the 20th annual University of Kentucky Ken Freedman Outstanding Professional Advisor Award.
The award recognizes outstanding service in the field of academic advising.
In addition, Pirrman was awarded the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) Region 3 Excellence in Advising Award.
His accolades did not extend to just regional and state honors; he received a Certificate of Merit from the national division of NACADA.
The awards come as recognition for the hard work Pirrman has put in, which extends far beyond normal 9-5 hours. Such commitments come with the territory of advising college students, but still his efforts -- which go above and beyond those expected of an everyday professional -- have not go unnoticed by UK track and field and cross country head coach Edrick Floreal.
Floreal is known as a demanding coach when it comes to athletes' training, but his high standards also extend to the classroom. Thus he brings Pirrman on many of the team's road trips, which often occur at key points during the academic year.
Pirrman holds study halls in team hotels throughout those trips, sacrificing many a weekend during the year on behalf of the student-athletes he advises.
That sacrifice of possible personal time, and the positive results that time has had on many multiple Wildcats it not lost on Floreal.
But the influence of Pirrman's time and effort on the well-being of UK student-athletes are just beginning to be adequately documented.
"Mike's impact on the teams are supported by numbers that stand on their own," Floreal said. "Just look at the women's cross country team's perfect 1000 score in Academic Progress Rate. The women's indoor and outdoor track and field, and men's cross country all exceeded the national average in terms of APR. Also our women's cross country team's GPA was 3.667 GPA, which helped the entire athletic department to its best academic semester since 2002-03.
"His commitment to our team, student athletes and staff is always evident in the numbers that reach far beyond our student-athletes' four years at UK. It is something they will carry for a lifetime."
Other examples Pirrman's commitments are reflected in academic successes by the likes Chelsea Oswald.
Oswald graduated with a 4.0 GPA and was awarded the 2012-13 Boyd McWhorter Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award as the Southeastern Conference's top student-athlete achieving success in the classroom and in competition. Oswald won the SEC 5,000 and 10,000-meter Championships in the 2012-13 year, also claiming three All-America honors.
"I've been given a great opportunity here at UK and I've just tried my hardest every day to make the most of it," Oswald said upon receiving the McWhorter award. "This award recognizes not only my achievements, but also all the great people, like Mike Pirrman, who have helped me along the way."
Luis Orta, meanwhile, was selected to give the commencement address at the University's 2012 December Graduation Ceremony. The Caracas, Venezuela native graduated with a dual degree in international studies and Hispanic studies.
Orta's journey to graduation was one of the greatest testaments to Pirrman's role in guiding student-athletes from enrollment to graduation.
In his first semester at UK, Orta successfully navigated a full
course load even though he was only just learning English. Along the way, he broke three freshman records in competition. During his four years, Orta developed academically, so much so that he was the commencement speaker.
At graduation as well as during an acceptance speech for the "Mr. Wildcat" award at the 2013 CATSPY Awards, Orta expressed his gratitude for the guidance Pirrman had provided, and in fluent English to boot.
"Last year I got this award and I forgot to mention Mike Pirrman," Orta said in 2013. "I have to thank him so much. Four years ago, I had the great fortune to come to this country and pursue my dreams. It's thanks to him and my teammates that I was able to get through my first year even though I didn't speak English. I ended up graduating with honors and a double SEC Champion, and it's just been a blessing."
This weekend, Cally Macumber will look to improve on a sixth-place finish at last season's NCAA Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As Cally Macumber races at the NCAA Cross Country Championships Saturday in Terre Haute, Ind., for the second consecutive year, she does so following an exciting second-place finish at the NCAA Southeast Regional Championships Nov. 15 in Charlottesville, Va.
The UK senior passed two runners in the final 50 meters of the 6,000-meter race and made up a 15-meter gap to secure a spot in Saturday's national championship event.
Her finish of 20:07.90 solidified an NCAA Championship bid and was just 0.80 seconds ahead of Virginia's Barbara Strehler and Duke's Juliet Bottorff, who both posted a 20:08.70. Emily Stites of William and Mary won the event in 19:57.5.
It was that final 50-meter kick that gives the Rochester Hills, Mich., native a chance to compete for a national title.
"She was probably 30 or 40 yards back with about 300 meters left and made a fantastic move," UK head coach Edrick Floreal said. "It's just being in the zone, like a basketball player making six or seven in a row. It's a jolt of confidence, and you sort of have to have that 'I don't want to lose' mentality.
"It was a single file line that was probably about six or seven girls long. Cally, in that big homestretch at one point went left and came back right and passed another one, it was kind of amazing, just to watch that confidence. We talked after the SEC Championships, and she didn't do what we thought was her best and we talked about being a champion and finding a way to becoming that champion, one that people talk about. She is making strides to become that."
That can't-lose attitude was what got Macumber a runner-up finish and a place on the All-Southeast Regional team for the second consecutive season.
"Whenever you see the finish line, you get that extra boost," Macumber said of her sprint to the finish. "I just get really happy to see the finish line and start sprinting. The energy from having all the cheering fans gets me to sprint."
After a break-out season in 2012, Macumber has raced this season with a target on her back. It's something she has grown to accept and a challenge she has taken head on.
"She is becoming aware of her abilities," Floreal said. "She's aware, and everyone else is aware. People are building their strategies based off of her, and that's a sign of respect. You also have to embrace that and convince them that this plan won't work, I can adjust too."
Macumber has adjusted well, and her sprint to the finish at the NCAA Regionals was the perfect example. Now, it's time to bring it one last time.
"I need to keep focused and not think about that too much," Macumber said of the expectations. "It's just another race and I have to make sure I stay composed and do the best I can."
As the lone Kentucky runner in her final collegiate cross-country competition Saturday, she'll be racing all alone for the Blue and White.
"I definitely feel like I'm representing our team, and I want to represent us well," Macumber said. "I'm going to try and finish as high up as possible."
Being the only runner from UK and having lofty expectations won't faze her though. As Macumber said, "It's just another race."
Only this time, there will be a lot more people cheering as she nears that finish line.
UK cross country will compete in NCAA Regionals in Charlottesville, Va., on Friday. (Jake Most, UK Athletics)
For as much as cross country is an individual sport, at the University of Kentucky, it's all about the team.
The message that Sean Graham and Hakon DeVries, UK's men's and women's cross country coaches, have stressed to the Wildcats is the importance of running and working together. Even with Cally Macumber -- one of three Wildcats to qualify for the NCAA Championships last season and the defending regional champion -- on the roster, it's a team-first attitude.
That will definitely be the case as UK returns to the NCAA Southeast Regional Friday in Charlottesville, Va.
At last week's SEC Championship, that teamwork and preparation throughout the season paid off in the form of a third-place finish for the women and a No. 5 finish from the men. Both were improvements over last year's finish, the first year under head coach Edrick Floreal.
"Throughout the season we try to hammer home the point of working together in races," DeVries said of his women's squad. "I think that element really showed up at SECs. The team worked together well and overcame some adversity. Overall, we're building and this Friday hopefully will be even more of a team effort then it was at SECs two weeks ago."
The key is to run with a teammate, and feed off of each other. Practices and races earlier in the season were vital to determine who runs best with whom. Graham, in his first season in Lexington with the UK men, has seen the growth and improvement this season as he has stressed the team approach since day one.
"It's improved throughout the season and benefited us at SECs," Graham said. "The guys are figuring out who they're compatible with, and how that benefits us as a team. I think it helps that we train with this mentality for the entire season. They have a demeanor of 'how am I doing, how am I competing to help the team be better.' The mentality that they need to work really hard to get the team better has hit home, especially after a good performance at SECs."
With any team sport, there are certain individuals who excel beyond the rest, and cross country is undoubtedly no exception. For Kentucky, the presence of Macumber at the front of the pack is the ultimate distraction for her teammates, not something that destroys that important team philosophy.
With the Wildcats' team-first approach, Macumber's success just helps take the pressure off her teammates and helps them run. It's the perfect scenario for the UK women, especially since all Macumber cares about is the team.
"Cally is all about the team first, she wants to team to make NCAAs so badly, and would trade any individual performance for that," DeVries said. "For her to take some of the spotlight and pressure on herself has been great for the team and allowed them to really develop throughout the year."
Going into the SEC Championships, the goal was to improve off of last season's conference championship performance. With a team-first mindset, it was mission accomplished: two spots higher for the men, one for the women. Now, the focus has been to keep the momentum going. As the Wildcats see the payoff from their training, the last two weeks have come together.
"The last two weeks have been great," DeVries said. "The results of SECs fired up the team even more to get them to realize their full potential as a team. Us as coaches have seen it for a while, but until you have that breakout performance, it really changed the attitude and demeanor of the group."
"It's been really good," Graham added. "It's basically just sharpening. All the real work was done over the summer and early in the season. Now that we've put that work in, the last two weeks have been just getting ready for Friday. Everything's come together well."
Friday in Charlottesville, the Wildcats will look to take everything they've focused on and prepared for to the course. The men's 10,000 meter race begins at noon, ET, while the women leave the starting line at 1:15 p.m. for a six-kilometer race.
The top two teams and top four individuals at each of the nine regional sites will automatically advance to the NCAA Championships to be held in Terre Haute, Ind., on Saturday, Nov. 23. Thirteen teams will also earn at-large bids, to be announced on Saturday, Nov. 16.
At one point this offseason while Edrick Floreal was interviewing candidates to take over as men's distance coach, one of the team's top runners - Matt Hillenbrand - was calling his head coach every other day to see how the search was going.
"For a while there I was thinking, 'At least he wasn't calling me every day,' but then I found out the days he wasn't calling me he was talking to women's distance coach Hakon DeVries about the search," Floreal said. "But it shows just how much he cares about our program. You want to have people who are invested in the program.
"I'm glad we hired Coach Sean Graham to work directly with our men's distance runners because now Matt can blow up Graham's phone instead of mine. I admired that Matt takes ownership of our program because we are trying to build something where we talk about our team, not my or your team."
Hillenbrand's hands-on approach very much embodies the commitment Floreal and his staff asked of the team upon arriving in Lexington late in the summer of 2012. Some Wildcats showed results right away, while others, like Hillenbrand, took time to perform up to their abilities.
UK vs. Alabama football game programs are available inside Commonwealth Stadium.
Floreal's team had to buy in. Such was the first message Floreal delivered to the Wildcats upon meeting them. Some just took longer to do so than others.
At the forefront of buying in, and as such experiencing stellar results, was Cally Macumber. The women's distance standout embraced a new training plan under DeVries, she began running times she had never ever considered when setting goals before the season and eventually she won the Southeastern Conference and NCAA Southeast Region Championships before continuing a great year in track.
"Starting out as a freshman in college, who couldn't break five minutes in the mile and couldn't run under 2:17 in the 800, I definitely would not have thought that things would have progressed the way they did," Macumber said. "Going into college you really have no idea what to expect, but each year your standards and goals change and mine definitely changed for the better last year. Coming into last cross country season with an entirely new coaching staff and an entirely new training plan there was an adjustment period. However, once we all got the hang of things I started to feel better and stronger than I ever had - we all did."
Hillenbrand too, saw improved results, but they didn't come as quickly as they did for Macumber. Instead he experienced a great deal of trial and error before seeing the desired results.
"Some people on the team got a grasp of everything and made a quick turnaround and that's really what you want," Floreal said. "With some people it took a little bit. We tried a few things with Matt, including some longer distances and a little bit of steeplechase. Having a guy that will try everything to get to the next level is they type of person you want.
"Later in the season he really turned things around when he decided to showcase how talented he was. He helped the team in numerous ways. It's credit to his work ethic, and his belief in the process."
Hillenbrand was a middle-of-the pack finisher for most of the 2012 cross country season, and those types of results continued into the 2013 indoor track season. All throughout, he was experimenting at different distances while adjusting to a higher-volume training regimen under the new coaching staff.
The work began to pay dividends at the Indoor SEC Championships. In the Mile Final, Hillenbrand surged on the last straightaway of Arkansas' 200-meter track to knock off the defending conference champion from the powerhouse hosts, and claim a photo-finish SEC title. The win was the first in a string of strong results, which culminated in outdoor All-America status. More broadly the win meant a realization that goals which may have seemed impossible when initially proposed by the new coaches months earlier were in fact within grasp.
Hillenbrand's success continued into the outdoor season when he qualified for the NCAA Championships for the first time in his career, where he was named an All-American at 1,600 meters.
Macumber and Hillenbrand have continued to progress into the early stages of the 2013 cross country season. The two are part of a small group of Wildcats that have experienced success in the first year and change under Floreal's leadership.
More is expected from more people. Additional numbers are needed to reach Floreal's ultimate goals for a program which encompasses six sports: men's and women's cross country, men's and women's indoor track and field and men's and women's outdoor track and field.
Floreal's first recruiting class made up of 49 athletes - with 55 individual high school state titles, 17 college All-America honors and 16 college conference titles (from college transfers) divided among the class - says as much.
"I would probably define our team as 'under construction,' " Floreal said. "We spent most of our time developing our top-runners and integrating our freshmen. We continue to test the foundation of the house we have spent the last few months building."
This spring, Chelsea Oswald of UK track and field/cross country won the Southeastern Conference's prestigious H. Boyd McWhorter Scholarship for her outstanding academic record. Now, she's featured in a public service announcement you'll likely be seeing often as you watch SEC football games this fall. Take a look.
Cally Macumber won the 2012 SEC Cross Country Championship. (Michael Rivera, UK Athletics)
It's a journey that began on July 9, 2012 when Edrick Floreal was named the University of Kentucky's track and field head coach. With the first year behind them, the beginning of the cross country season signals the beginning of year two of Floreal's bid to shape UK into a national power.
As Floreal and the UK cross country program begin their second season together, they do so with greater familiarity, but also with plenty of additional pieces.
A cast of 19 new student-athletes joins the program this year, in addition to first-year men's cross country coach Sean Graham. The foundation that returns from last season, which includes Floreal, several additional assistant coaches and 13 returning student-athletes, will be the base as the Wildcats continue to build.
"Pretty simply, this is year two of the little journey we began last year," Floreal said. "We're looking forward to moving forward to cross country, getting our team to do better than last year, which is our goal from year to year, just keep improving from year to year and putting a product out there that's worthy of what the University of Kentucky deserves."
The cross country season acts as the perfect springboard into track and field in the winter and spring for the Wildcats.
In year two, despite the arrival of numerous newcomers, the learning curve won't be as big for the coaching staff and the student-athletes. As Floreal works to mold the team in the way he sees best, his idea becomes clearer.
The goal, simply, is to have people take notice of Kentucky. Competing in one of the nation's toughest conferences, that is no easy task.
"We want to be relevant, which is my goal," Floreal said. "People say competitive, but that can kind of be a fluffy word, with whatever that means. To me, I want to be relevant.
"Relevant is, if we go into a cross country championship at the SEC, if we don't show up, I want to make sure that our presence is felt. Sometimes you don't come and nobody will know if you were there or not. But for me, relevant is that people see us walking in, and they know, 'OK, these guys are here to do business, they're going to give it their best shot.' "
Last season was a step in the right direction. Cally Macumber helped make Kentucky relevant when she won the SEC Cross Country Championship. It was the first individual conference title for any UK woman since 1989 and the second championship in team history.
As a team, the Wildcat women finished fifth, while the men placed sixth in 2012. This year, the expectations are to do better.
"Summer training went really well," said Macumber. "I know the other girls' summer training went really well and we're just excited to be back, ready to train and ready to start the year out fresh."
Macumber finished sixth at the 2012 NCAA Cross Country Championships.
On the men's team, Graham's hiring as assistant coach and cross country coach on Aug. 19 is the newest piece to the puzzle.
Graham, who spent last year as an assistant coach at American University, was an Olympic Trials finalist in the 5,000 meter in 2004. He has trained with both the Nike Farm team and the Oregon Track Club Elite after competing collegiately for the College of William and Mary.
"We feel that Coach Graham has all the necessary abilities and qualities that we look for in a coach, and he's absolutely in love with the idea of coaching here at UK," Floreal said. "That was very important to me, I wanted somebody that saw this as an opportunity of a lifetime, that just adores the chance to work with our kids and to service them and be a mentor to them."
Graham's attitude and enthusiasm is sure to rub off on the UK runners. While it will be a new philosophy and set of ideas from their coach, the Wildcats should have no problem finding the energy.
When year two begins in Nashville at the Belmont Opener on Aug. 30, it will start another leg of Floreal's journey at Kentucky.