April 14, 2014
The Big Ten, the nation's oldest collegiate conference, commemorates the 100th anniversary of a very unique tradition - the Big Ten Medal of Honor. As part of the celebration, the conference is conducting a national campaign to pay tribute to the rich tradition established in 1915 and showcase the benefits of the student-athlete experience across its campuses.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The Big Ten Conference bestowed the Medal of Honor to Bethany Praska at the finish line of her career, but the 2012 University of Iowa graduate says the true honor came before the gun.
Praska was at home when she toed the starting line at the Big Ten Championships on May 15, 2011. Francis X. Cretzmeyer Track hosted the league championships that day, and Praska was just minutes away from winning the women's 800-meter title when she had a moment of reflection.
"It was great to find myself at the Big Ten Championships my senior year," Praska recalled. "I had never made it to finals of the 800 before, so I thought it was great just to toe the line with some of the other competitors."
She won the race in 2:05.63, and later that same day anchored the 1,600-meter relay to another Big Ten title. In her final home race, she broke the tape in a facility record 3:36.51. It was her third conference title of the year -- she also won the indoor 600 meters. It was her second school record -- she set a new standard in the indoor 800 meters. And it was a precursor to one of the conference's most exclusive awards.
"My senior year was a dream indoor and outdoor season in regards to my career," she said, "and the Big Ten Medal of Honor was definitely one of the peaks. It was unexpected, a great surprise and a great honor."
The Big Ten Medal of Honor was established in 1915. For 68 years, the conference recognized only male student-athletes -- one from each league institution -- but in 1983 one male and one female from each school was recognized for their athletic and academic excellence.
Praska -- with three All-America honors, three Big Ten titles, three Academic All-Big Ten honors, and one Big Ten Sportsmanship Award -- fit the mold.
"My senior year was a dream indoor and outdoor season in regards to my career and the Big Ten Medal of Honor was definitely one of the peaks. It was unexpected, a great surprise and a great honor."
At the time she was the fourth UI track and field female athlete to win the award -- Jennifer Brower (1992), Tina Stec (1994), and Meghan Armstrong (2008) were the others. One year later teammate McKenzie Melander joined their company, raising the sport's total to five.
"There are any number of Iowa student-athletes over the years who would be worthy of that award, so to be singled out among the best-of-the-best is very special," said UI head coach Layne Anderson. "That's a special group of runners. They're all winners."
Since graduating with a Spanish degree in 2012, Praska has remained in Iowa City to train for a number of national and international events. She said the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships is the next 'big thing' on the schedule, and continuing her career on the UI campus is the best place to prepare.
"I'm still not ready to hang up my spikes and I feel there are certain areas in my training and I'd like to pinpoint and work on before I put them away," she said. "I'm still loving it and growing in the running area. Having the home base in Iowa City... it's nowhere that I'm in a hurry to leave by any means."
She has also found Cretzmeyer track to be a source of inspiration and a place to work face-to-face with people pursuing their passion.
"It's great to see people come in and, not see myself in them, but know the difficulties they might feel and be able to tell them, 'Hey, guess what's going to happen when you put all this hard work in. Maybe it might not happen next week, but three years down the line, don't give up on yourself because you don't know where it is going to take you."