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Heather Dorniden, Alumna (B.S. '09)

It’s a good thing for fans of Gopher track and field that Heather Dorniden is as fond of running as she is of playing the flute.

Dorniden was on track for a music scholarship when she discovered that she could parlay her running talent into a scholarship at the University of Minnesota. Over the past four-and-a-half years, she has rewritten the record books at the U. She was the NCAA indoor champion in the 800 meters as a freshman and went on to become an eight-time All-American, establishing herself as the most decorated Gopher women’s track and field athlete in history. She was a finalist for the U’s Female Athlete of the Year in 2009 and won the award in 2008.

Moreover, she has been a big fish—although she would argue otherwise—in a sea change for women’s track. During Dorniden’s tenure, the Gophers won six Big Ten championships in track and cross-country. Though the team placed third in the Big Ten Cross Country Championships in fall 2009, it went on to win the NCAA Midwest Region crown and placed tenth in the national competition.

Excellence off the track

To maintain her 3.90 GPA, Dorniden, who graduated in December with a degree in kinesiology, had to learn balance to go along with her speed. Three years in a row, as she prepared mentally and physically to race in the Big Ten Tournament, she first had to sit down in a hotel conference room for a final exam. Then it was off to the track for her 800- and 1,500-meter races and the 4x400 meter relay.

“I’ve never really settled for less than the best in everything I do, so I put the same effort into class activities as I do into track or cross country,” says Dorniden, who plans to earn a doctorate in physical therapy. “Competing helps me focus a lot on school, especially knowing that my grade point average means something if I want to compete.”

Dorniden was one of just 87 women to be awarded an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship last year (along with kinesiology senior and Gopher swimmer Jenny Shaughnessy).

She also earned laurels for juggling community service with her busy schedule. In 2009 she was presented a President’s Student Leadership and Service Award along with a University of Minnesota Alumni Association Leadership Award. Placing a high value on service, Dorniden seems to relish the off-the-track awards as much as her All-American honors. “I think it’s [great] to be recognized for all the other things that I’ve tried to do beyond athletics,” she says. "I think a lot of people assume that athletes at the University of Minnesota are just here to play the game, and there’s a lot more involved with it.

Dorniden, who naturally wears a smile and is quick to laugh, positively lights up when she talks about volunteering with elementary school kids. "They treat you like you’re a superstar. They want your autograph, and they think you’re amazing," she says. "It’s so fun to be able to do things that you know will impact their lives. You’re given such a great platform from which to speak when you are an athlete that they listen to you, and they care what you have to say.

More steps ahead

Now that she has completed her undergraduate studies and her final season of cross-country eligibility, Dorniden plans to attend physical therapy school—ideally at the University of Minnesota. First, though, she’s got her sights set on London and the 2012 Olympics. She recently signed with Team USA Minnesota, which will support and develop her as she trains. She competed in the Olympic trials last summer, pre-Beijing, but feels that racing all year long had left her burned out.

It’d be really cool to at least go to another trials and see what I can do," she says. Plus I really don’t know what I’d do if I just stopped running all of a sudden.

Story by Rick Moore, with Suzy Frisch | Photo by Greg Helgeson | January 2010

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