|Vol. 24, No. 14||Feb. 10, 1999|
BY A. DUNLAP-SMITH
Watching Sarah Feeley glide along the campus paths is to become convinced that some people have a more privileged relationship with gravity than the rest of us. The picture is enhanced, moreover, by her perfectly unharried expression, which covers Feeley in an aura of serenity.
But if further proof were needed, then it can be found on the infield of a track. There, in the small area that surrounds the thin metal high jump bar, is where Feeley defies gravity as one of the Columbia track and field team's best women jumpers ever.
Feeley holds the school indoor high jump record of 5'7 1/4", a feat she accomplished as a sophomore, during only her second year of jumping indoors. She is also the co-holder of the outdoor record of 5'6 1/2". This winter she won two of the three meets she entered. One of those took place a few weeks ago at the Armory, the storied indoor track venue abutting Columbia's Health Sciences campus, which drew collegiate teams from such national powers as Washington, Ohio State, George Mason and Villanova.
"Sure Sarah's got all the physical gifts for high jumping-she's so tall . . . 6'2", I believe," Head Track and Field Coach Willy Wood says, "but she's also got a great mental gift: She never seems to sense pressure; she's just so relaxed out there."
Feeley, a College junior from Indianapolis, is in fact 6'1", taller certainly than most 20-year-old women; though she appears taller still. Her reed-thin 140 lbs. frame, her 36" inseam and her tapering fingers, so long and fine they resemble the ribs of a Japanese fan, all combine to create a portrait of longitude, of a body mysteriously unburdened by any earthward resistance as it grew.
The physical characteristics that make of Feeley the very definition of a modern high jumper are not all she uses, as coach Wood points out, to get over the bar. Her mental gift plays an equally important--and surprising--role in making her the athlete she is. In what would be a mean twist of fate if Feeley herself didn't find the irony amusing, she's very timid. "I guess I get attention because I'm tall," Feeley says through a shy grin, "but, really, people watching me makes me nervous." If there's one thing this eye-catching track star hates, it's the public eye.
Yet, as she faces the high jump bar, she channels her timidity to stoke her will to win. "I don't want to embarass myself by looking stupid-it's fear, really, that helps me become more competitive."
Feeley's achievements and record setting performances have come with little forewarning. On a high school team with only 10 members, Feeley was asked to do some of everything, including the 300 meter hurdles and the 4x400 meter relay. And when a high jumper was needed, she was the obvious choice. "I was tall so they thought it was something I could do." It wasn't until her 11th-grade year, however, that she cleared the threshold height of 5'0".
A spotty track career at her small Indianapolis high school left Feeley unrecruited. So it was not the track and field team but the Columbia/Julliard music program and New York City's vibrant music scene that clinched her decision to apply early to the College. But Feeley eventually decided against the joint music program when a future of practicing her flute all day was not something she wanted. Even though that decision freed her to pursue track unfettered, she wasn't sure that she could make the team. Coach Wood dispelled her doubts by readily accepting her as a walk on.
Now Feeley devotes between 2-3 hours, six and sometimes seven days a week to the team. "Traveling with them and practicing and just spending that much time with my teammates has made us very close," she says; "the team means a lot to me." When not flying backward over a bar or training to fly backward, she's often found in one of Schapiro Hall's basement practice rooms fingering the stops on her flute.
"I've discovered that track really complements music," she says; "in both you have to pay attention to your breathing and your body position and to holding yourself up straight . . . and for all of that it also really helps to be in shape."
The Feeleys introduced their four children to music, as well as to sports, at an early age. Sarah began the piano in kindergarten and took to it immediately. "I was just thrown into music and loved it," Feeley says. "At the magnet school I went to I tried almost everything in the music room . . . I even played xylophone for a while."
The flute was started in second grade. It competed for her attention with the piano until, as a high school sophomore, she decided that performing at the keyboard was just too scary. The fear of "looking stupid" in the concert hall failed to ignite her competitive fire as it does in the high jump area. She has since enjoyed playing in orchestras and chamber ensembles, but right now she pursues her interest simply through lessons.
Feeley's taste in music is as eclectic as once was her taste in musical instruments. She loved the opera when, for the first time as a sophomore, she went to see "La Traviata" and "Turandot." She also confesses to enjoying lower-brow fare too. Film scores, for instance, particularly "The Last of the Mohicans," are a favorite. ("My sister [a senior at Smith College] would kill me if she knew I told anybody that.")
A career in music is her post-college goal, though she's not sure of which career. Last summer Feeley worked for the artistic administrator of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. The experience started her thinking about becoming an arts administrator herself one day rather than a professional flutist. It's a possibility she realizes that her liberal arts education from the College, as opposed to the more focused curriculum she would have had at a conservatory, allows her the flexibility to consider.
Knowing, too, that after May of next year she will at last put away her track shoes, is especially motivating to her now. "It's such a crazy thing to do-jumping over a bar backward-but I love it and I love being with the team, so I just want to see how far I can push it while I'm here."
That could indeed be far. For as she attracts more attention to herself with each new exploit, it will only throw fuel on Sarah Feeley's competitive fire.