Few student-athletes will ever have the honor of serving as a team captain. Even fewer will go down in history with a school record.
American University’s Erin Koch has done both, and she’s done it in multiple Division-I sports.
On the soccer field, Koch was a two-time captain and earned team MVP honors as a senior. On the track, she currently holds a pair of school records and edged two indoor All-Americans to place 12th in the Olympic Division Elite heat of the Mt. SAC Relays last week. Between the sports, Koch is a four-time all-conference selection.
“She’s a racer, there’s no doubt about that,” Head Coach Matt Centrowitz said. “Her instincts are tremendous and that’s something that you can’t coach. Sometimes it takes years [to develop those instincts] and she just did it the first time out of the blocks.”
Koch joined the track and cross country program as a graduate student after four years of soccer at American. She started every game on the defensive line as a sophomore and was named team captain during her junior and senior years. She even helped guide the Eagles to the Patriot League Championship game in 2009, but a double-overtime heartbreaker ended her soccer career. Koch played in 77 career games, the most in program history at the time.
While Koch was training on the soccer field, friends joked about her conditioning being so strong that she could compete in track once her soccer eligibility ran out. With the championship loss still in the back of her mind, she finally started thinking about it more seriously and approached Centrowitz and his staff about the possibility of running in a meet.
“I wasn’t ready for soccer to finish when it finished and I still wanted to compete,” Koch stated. “Track was a way to keep competing.”
She began as a relay runner simply filling in to help, but as coaches saw more and more potential in her Koch began gravitating towards the individual events. After registering a top-five finish at the Maryland Invitational, she recorded the fourth fastest 1,000-meter time in program history at the New Balance Collegiate Invitational. Two weeks later, she broke the tape at the Patriot League Championships and brought home the team’s only individual conference championship.
“I realized she was going to be good right away, but I didn’t realize how good she was going to be,” Centrowitz said, “and I’m still learning that.”
The conference victory helped Koch realize her potential as a runner and motivated her to train in the offseason. She enrolled as a graduate student at American and started preparing for the cross country season in the fall. While her cross-country times were not quite what she had hoped for, Koch still registered a number of top-five finishes and was named to the All-Patriot League Second Team.
“Cross country was a struggle,” she said. “Last year I was able to get by just because I was competitive, but after cross country I really developed a base.”
When track season rolled around, Koch was feeling stronger than ever and it has certainly shown in her performance. Earlier this month she ran a personal best 4:24.04 in the 1,500-meter at the Colonial Relays, breaking three-time All-American Keira Carlstrom’s school record by a full second. Then she traveled to Mt. SAC and broke her own record by almost two seconds. Koch also broke Carlstrom’s record in the indoor mile in January.
“To break [Carlstrom’s] records definitely builds confidence and allows me to set goals that now seem more attainable, like making nationals and becoming an All-American,” she said.
Koch and Carlstrom are connected by more than records however, as both are among the rare math majors at American. They have also shown an added dedication to academics, earning multiple Patriot League Academic Honor Roll awards during their track and cross country tenures. Coach Centrowitz joked that he is beginning to see a theme.
“I was teasing Keira that I won’t recruit any more runners, just math majors,” he laughed. “[Koch and Carlstrom] are both built differently and respond differently, but there are certain similarities – precision, competitiveness and things like that. They’re both very driven.”
Koch identifies this competitiveness as the common thread that has made her a strong athlete in both soccer and track. However the mental ingredients for success are completely different in each sport, and this has been one of the biggest challenges that she is still trying to overcome. Not only do they require different types of mental preparation, but they have also forced her to rely on different sources of motivation.
“In a soccer game, you can be dead tired but the ball gets kicked down the field and you know that you have to get there,” she explained. “On a track, you’re just out there with yourself and there’s no team behind you. There’s definitely a team aspect to it but it’s more individual – the pressure is all on you. And it’s a lot easier to give up on yourself than it is to give up on a team.”
Even with a pair of school records under her belt, Koch is still not satisfied. She has set goals faster than the times that she’s run this season and still has a long way to go before reaching the national competition and becoming an All-American. While attaining these goals will require faster times, Koch said that her main focus is the complete opposite: slowing down.
“I’ve gone through a lot in my life, always rushing and trying to get everything done, but track has really taught me how to take a deep breath, take a step back, and slow down,” she said. “I’m always wanting to run my full [speed], but the idea is to feel relaxed for as long as possible. I think that’s helped me with everything in my life.”