An overwhelming desire to succeed wasn't what started 5-11 Kirsten Bolm in track and field
And it wasn't the influence of a charismatic role model, either. Surprisingly enough, it was nothing more than the soft, enticing sand of the long jump pit that put Kirsten on the road to stardom. And her father's inability to find a reliable babysitter.
As a young girl, Kirsten would play in the sand to amuse herself while her father, Michael, coached her brother and his peers on a track team in Scheesel, Germany. Michael didn't take much notice of his daughter at first, concentrating instead on his son, four years Kirsten's elder. It wasn't until 10-year-old Kirsten started to beat her brother in races that Michael realized the star of his family was his little sand-covered girl, who just happened to be blessed with unhuman speed.
By the time Kirsten hit the fourth grade, the boys in her school flat refused to run against her in any races. She was faster than all of them by then, and her natural ability was too much for any young man's pride. Even now, she has a hard time finding men to train against when she returns to Germany. When she does, she's not surprised to see them mysteriously pulling up lame at the finish line, calling attention to an unexpected cramp or an unfortunate hamstring pull down the homestretch.
A track and field prodigy, Kirsten began to draw attention at an unusually early age. At 17, she was the youngest competitor at the World Junior Championships, where she finished fifth in the 100-meter hurdles. She came back in 1994, winning gold at the World Juniors in Portugal in the same event, showing up talented competitors from all over the world, including future Cougar teammate Tiffany Lott. At that moment, however, Kirsten would have never dreamed that her talents would take her to the United States, let alone to Provo, Utah.
To her surprise, Bolm was flooded with calls and catalogs from track coaches all over the nation who had caught wind of her gold medal performance and her subsequent German junior championships in the 100-meter hurdles and the long jump. There were so many interested parties, in fact, that Kirsten has virtually no recollection of the names of the schools on her tail. She does, however, remember the one coach who came to visit her in person. That man was BYU assistant track coach Patrick Shane.
"I was really impressed that he would come all that way just to talk to me. None of the other coaches that called me or wrote to me seemed as genuinely interested as he did. It made a strong impression."
Although Shane put BYU in the recruiting lead, the thought of going all the way to the United States to run on the track team of a school she had never heard of was a little too much for Kirsten. She decided, instead, to stay in Germany and attend a college in her home town. Despite the comforting surroundings of home, Kirsten realized after two years that she was missing out on an incredible opportunity.
"I didn't have a major or the right training at home, so I started writing a lot of the universities that had sent me stuff in the beginning," remembers Kirsten. "About 10 or 12 answered me, but I remember clearly that BYU was the first to answer. I thought about Nebraska and North Carolina, but with nothing really to go on, I decided to try BYU."
The first thing Kirsten wanted to do when she landed at Salt Lake International Airport in the fall of 1997 was board the next plane home. She met head women's track coach Craig Poole there in the terminal and hopped in a van headed for Happy Valley. "I came in at night and all I could see of Provo were the lights. 'Where is the city?' I asked. I couldn't believe how small it was," said Bolm.
The biggest shock to Kirsten came when she realized how much the LDS Church permeated the culture at BYU. "The church seems to dominate every aspect of life here," explained Kirsten. "The people I met had different attitudes about making decisions and would discuss things that aren't important anywhere else. It was really hard at first." Her culture shock was painfully apparent when she attended her first BYU class. "There were something like 150 people in there and before the professor taught anything all of them just stood up together and starting singing in perfect chorus. I was really confused," said Bolm.
Kirsten's next shock came with the NCAA's announcement that she was already a sophomore. She was losing a year of her eligibility because she had competed for a semi-pro track club, TV Scheesel
"Here in the United States, there are athletic teams that are part of the universities. In Germany, it is much different. If you want to be on a team, you have to join a club because there, school is just school," explained Kirsten. It's an argument that she hopes will convince the NCAA to grant her appeal to regain her lost year of eligibility.
When asked what she likes best about America, Kirsten is silent while, surprisingly, deep in thought.
"Dollar movies," she replies. "They're so expensive in Germany. What I miss the most, though, is good bread and chocolate. I also miss riding the train and bus everywhere like you can in Europe. Here you have to have a car if you want to have a life."
Though intimidated by the culture and slightly confused in her classes, Kirsten was instantly at home with Coach Poole and her new team.
"What kind of person I am is more important to them than what I believe in," said Bolm. She immediately fell in love with the schedule at BYU. Unlike Germany, she had school, training and therapy together in one place and the structure and organization to allow her studies and five hours of daily training to peaceably coexist.
According to Kirsten, her first season at BYU was her worst competitive season ever.
"I really think I ran better when I was only 16," admits Bolm. The performance was a reflection of Kirsten's struggling confidence and indicative of her fading desire. It was nearly enough to send Kirsten packing for Germany, a thought that had crossed her mind on numerous occasions.
"I have come a long way in the last five years. I went through four years of desert when I just wanted to quit and I wasn't going anywhere. I started to read inspirational stories about athletes that overcame hard times, and it helped shape my personality," said Bolm.
An even more powerful influence for good was provided by Coach Poole, who Kirsten credits for keeping her in school and in focus.
"He is really doing a lot for me, but I appreciate him more as a person than as a coach," said Bolm. "He takes care of me whenever something goes wrong. He's always ready to help and support, no matter what."
Fall of 1998 saw Kirsten return to action as a completely different person. Her renewed confidence and motivation were immediately evident in her performances, as she engaged in a subtle assault on the school's record book. In 1999 alone, Kirsten set a school record in the 60-meter hurdles, placed second all-time in the 100-meter hurdles, third in the indoor long jump, and fourth in the indoor 200 meters. Also in 1999, Kirsten participated in the World Championships for the first time, and although she didn't qualify for the 100-meter hurdle finals, she set a personal-best with a time of 13.04.
This season, Kirsten is leading a young Cougar team ranked ninth in the nation. She says she feels faster now than ever before, and it shows on the track. She recorded the third-fastest 60-meter hurdles time in the nation this year when she won the Husker Invitational title in 6.13 seconds and earned Mountain West Conference Athlete of the Week honors.
"She's an outstanding athlete, but more importantly than that, she's a student of her sport," said Poole. "She's dedicated and focused on what she wants to accomplish, working hard to achieve it. She's a coach's kind of athlete, let's put it that way."
The best is almost certainly yet to come from Bolm, as she has already qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships. She is also training for the 2000 Olympics and the Olympic trials in Germany this July. Germany has set qualifying standards higher than other nations in an attempt to field a team of elite athletes in Sydney, but Bolm is undeterred.
Early to practice and among the last to leave, Bolm hits the fieldhouse track for four hours each day with the determination of someone chasing an Olympic dream. Her training secret sounds like something out of a Rocky movie. She runs sprints with a 150-pound sled strapped to her torso. Look for her then. It may be your only chance to beat her.