JSU track athlete Erica Stam has rebounded from an injury that made her miss all of last season. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
No one would have blamed Ericka Stam if she kept on walking after crossing the stadium stage with her diploma in August and got on with her life. But she’s a distance runner at heart and has a little more running to do at Jacksonville State before putting up her running shoes for the last time.
Stam returned to the starting line this fall after missing all the previous athletic year with foot problems. Now she is running as well as ever. She’ll be out to assault her 5-kilometer school record Saturday when the Gamecocks open their outdoor track and field campaign with their lone home meet of the season.
With nursing degree in hand, Stam debated whether to return for her final year of eligibility. She decided to go for it one last time because she didn’t want any regrets down the road.
“I’ve always been a competitive person,” she said. “I always wanted to achieve the goals I set for myself and I kept thinking I didn’t accomplish all I set out to do while I was here.
“I’ve always wanted to break the record in the 10K. That’s my goal this outdoor season, to demolish the record, and I’ve been working real hard at that. I wanted to accomplish personal goals before I left. I didn’t think I did that before I got hurt and I didn’t feel like as a runner I was finished with all I set out to do.”
Trying to figure out what exactly was wrong was a marathon in itself.
The problem surfaced in the summer of 2012. Stam’s feet bothered her every time she ran, and she couldn’t figure out the reason. At first it was believed to be a stress fracture, but none was evident on any test.
As she continued to train, so did the pain. She got a shot for what was believed to be nerve inflammation, but when that provided no relief, she scratched the cross country season.
Finally, at Christmas break, X-rays taken back home in Texas revealed joint damage from what’s commonly called “Morton’s Toe” -- a longer second toe relative to the big toe that bears much of her running weight.
She pulled the plug on the track season because the condition kept her from being in good enough physical shape to be competitive. She now wears custom orthotics in her shoes, which she uses on training runs but not in competition.
“She came in last year and sat in my office and cried,” JSU track coach Steve Ray said. “She said, 'I’m just not ready. The injury set me back so much. I hate to do this, but I don’t want to waste my senior year running on it. I don’t want to end it on a lousy note.' We bit the bullet and said we’ll hold you out and let you come back next year.
“Now we’re going to run that thin red line. I think any athlete who gets that fifth year they know it’s do or die, the last go-round, there’s no coming back next year. I’ve got to put the pedal on the floor and roll no matter what. She’s hell bent on getting this done.”
As her time away from competition slowly passed, Stam credited her fiance, Michael Mason, a senior pitcher on the JSU baseball team, for “keeping me sane.” They have a Dec. 13 wedding planned -- that’s 12-13-14 on the calendar -- exactly three years to the day of their engagement.
Now, Ray says, Stam is “on top of her game.”
The year before the foot problems surfaced, she ran the Chief Ladega Half Marathon faster than the state women’s record, but since she’s not from Alabama she couldn’t be recognized for the mark.
Shortly after returning she ran a 5K during the cross country season in 17 minutes, 50.82 seconds. She later became the first JSU woman to break 18:00 indoors when she went 17:51.72 to finish fifth at the Ohio Valley Conference Championships.
Her goal is to run 17:30 – she ran 17:47:56 in 2011 -- a record she’ll start chasing Saturday in the Gamecocks Quad Meet with Georgia State, Tennessee Tech and North Alabama. It starts at 11 a.m., with the running events starting at noon.
She’d also like to place in the top three in the OVC in the 10K and post a top 48 time to qualify for the the NCAA regionals. She won’t run that race for the first time this spring until next week at Florida State.
“This is my last year so this is all I have left,” she said. “It pushes me more to keep working every practice because I have only so many left before it’s over. I think that drives me a little bit. When I do set the records, it feels like all the work is paying off.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.