On Friday morning, Brittany Brown will wake up in University Park, Pa., take out her journal and empty her mind onto the page.
Writing has been a coping mechanism for the star sprinter since her days at Claremont High School in southern California.
“Sometimes there’s too much in your head, so to get it down on paper and see it calms me down a lot,” Brown said. “I don’t like to think a lot when I run.”
What Brown won’t be thinking about Friday is the NCAA championship in the 200 meters, a prize she has positioned herself to obtain throughout a sizzling junior season for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Her first hurdle comes in the preliminaries of the Big Ten Conference outdoor championships, where she is the reigning indoor titlist in her best event. Then it is on to the NCAA Regionals in Austin, Texas, and, ultimately, the big showdown in Eugene, Ore.
That’s if all goes well for Brown. And it sure has so far.
“That (phrase), ‘national champion,’ sometimes freaks people out,” Iowa coach Joey Woody said. “So it’s not allowing that to get in her way of knowing that she has the ability of being a national champ. Winning the Big Tens is a big first step.”
Brown, 22, is in the midst of a third breakout season. Early in her high school career, as her journal will attest, she was frustrated by her inability to qualify for the California state track meet. She would put up sub-12-second times in the 100 meters — marks good enough to win it all in other places, such as Iowa — only to be outpaced by too many other girls in her competitive home state.
“It was annoying,” Brown said. “I’d look at other states and think, ‘Man, I should just move.’”
Brown stayed put and was rewarded as a senior when she made it to state and finished second in the 100 and 200 meters. She ranked in the top four nationally in both events.
When it came time to choose a college, Brown visited San Diego State and Texas Tech but felt oddly tugged toward Iowa City. A high school teammate, Klyvens Delaunay, was a jumper with the Hawkeyes, and he had associate head coach Clive Roberts reach out to Brown.
Brown was “nervous and scared” to move so far from home, but she also felt comforted among her new teammates. Delaunay transferred to Alabama. Brown stayed put, relieved to discover that the snow was only temporary.
As a freshman, Brown ran a 22.95 in the 200 meters, becoming the first Hawkeye to break the 23-second barrier. She placed 11th at the NCAA Championships. An athlete who acknowledges she sometimes struggles with confidence pronounced herself “shocked” by her success and prepared to build on it.
Brown’s sophomore season was a disaster. She is prone to hip injuries, a result of a condition called femoral acetabular impingement. Those tiny, painful tears robbed her of the indoor season, which was spent getting cortisone shots instead of competing. When the outdoor season arrived, Brown pulled a hamstring.
More injections. More sitting.
Brown decided to stay in Iowa City to train that summer, often alone in sweltering conditions.
“That was mentally toughening for me. I had to talk myself into going to practices or to lift (weights),” Brown said.
Still, she was racked by doubt, right up until the first race of her junior season, at the longer distance of 400 meters. Brown remembers crying before then, asking herself: “Do I still have it?”
Brown finished in 57.10 seconds, the second-best mark on her team, and then collapsed while the pain washed over her. It was a good pain, though, coming from exhaustion — not a torn hip or pulled hamstring. Brown knew she was back.
Three months later, Brown lined up next to Olympians such as English Gardner and Natasha Hastings at the prestigious Mt. Sac Relays in Torrance, Calif. She had relatives and friends rooting her on. Consumed by nerves, Brown implored her teammates not to watch. But her best friend on the team, sprinter Alexis Hernandez, sent Brown a text.
“You belong here,” Hernandez wrote.
Brown was true to Hernandez’s words, blazing to a 22.69 finish that was good enough for fourth in the strongest field she’s ever faced. She bested Gardner and Hastings.
“Just to have that under my belt was really like, ‘OK, I can maybe do something this year,’” Brown said.
She has re-watched that race constantly in the four weeks since. Her next three meets are a chance to prove it wasn’t a fluke.
Brown will run the 100, 200 and on Iowa’s 4x100 and 4x400 relays at the Big Ten Championships this weekend. In each, she will concentrate on her lone weakness as a sprinter: the first five steps.
“I need to stay down longer to hold my acceleration phase,” she said.
But once Brown gets up to full speed, watch out.
“I’m not going to say I’m always confident. But I have a medium balance now,” Brown said. “I don’t worry about the clock. The times will come. I’ve proven that. I just need to run my race and know, ‘This is where I am. This is how I can control my emotions.’”
By leaving her thoughts — and opponents — behind.