It’s funny how sports work. I’m a casual, make that, horrible college basketball fan. To the tree that was cut-down to make my bracket sheet: I apologize. Admittedly, I do like excitement so I always get around to watching most of the NCAA Tournament (unless of course, something more thrilling, like, say, Congress, is on, in which case I’ll opt for 11 hours of testimony instead). Yet, even now the ignorant basketball fan in me can list a handful of players who, before some inspiring supporting performances on the hardwood this past weekend, never would have gained household name status. At the same time, I find it interesting that the country’s best freshman runner attends our school and most Yalies who know how many tattoos West Virginia’s Kevin Pittsnogle has on his arm don’t even know her name. Ladies and gentlemen: introducing Lindsay Donaldson.

Avid YDN sports section readers may be familiar with Donaldson. She was after all an honorable mention in the YDN winter sports awards for rookie of the season, no doubt an honor of indescribable proportions after a year where she is currently batting 1.000 for All-American awards in the fall and winter seasons and has established herself as the best freshman distance runner in the country. That last part’s not arguable; as Ron Burgundy would say, it’s science. Donaldson finished sixth overall at the cross country national championships and was the first freshman to cross the line. She competed in the indoor championships in the 3,000-meter run, and, again, placed first among freshmen. Perhaps at our competitive Div. I university where freshmen like Rajon Rondo are walking around — oh wait, that’s Kentucky (nice name drop to prove I’m semi-legit though, huh?) — we could argue whether she should be athlete of the season, but there’s no doubt in the minds of track nerds everywhere who their rookie of the season is.

I know what you’re thinking — it’s different for track. In other sports, the transition from being a dominant high school player to becoming a dominant college player requires an athlete to hone their skills. With track it seems simple: step on a track and run. How is racing different between high school and college? You have to be faster to win in college and even then, it’s not always the fastest person who wins the race. In distance especially, strategy is one of the skills needed to win. Of course, Donaldson races to win, but doing so requires stepping up her racing skills, which is exactly what this rookie did at this year’s Ivy League Indoor Championships.

People may question how well Ivy League sports hold up compared to other Div. I sports, but the line-up for this year’s 3,000-meter run read like a who’s who in college track and field. Columbia’s Caroline Bierbaum finished third at the 2004 NCAA Cross-Country Championships and placed second in the 5,000-meter run at this year’s Indoor Championships, while Princeton’s Cack Ferrell came in third at this year’s Indoor Championships and is an All-American from previous seasons. Harvard’s Lindsey Scherf and Donaldson were the only two freshmen among this fab-four but they already were All-Americans from their first season of cross country. Four All-Americans toed the line in Donaldson’s race and on that day, when it really mattered, she was the best. To take down experienced runners like the girls from Columbia and Princeton, Donaldson had to raise her game and race like a veteran, not like a freshman who, at the time, had yet to win an Ivy League title.

Aside from that, in track and field, the older you get, the better off you are. Most collegiate runners who have had a successful distance career in track has taken a relatively significant amount of time off of their high school bests. For Donaldson to already be hanging with the league’s best upperclassmen takes a lot more than talent, a thing that often gets too much credit when people have success in a relatively simple sport like track. It takes smarts, it takes courage. Just ask Lindsey Scherf about smarts. Early in the race, the Harvard freshman tried to go out a little too fast in an attempt to drop the rest of the field a little too early. She paid for it and finished a distant third. Ask Bierbaum about courage and what she felt when, with over 400 meters to go (a significant distance when you’re tired), Donaldson blew by her to take the lead for good. How does a team like Michigan State upset a much-favored team like Kentucky? The same guts those guys played with is what Donaldson ran with over that final 500 meters of the 3,000-meter race — only, Donaldson was alone out there.

With the APR rankings out and UPenn getting blown out by Boston College in the tournament, there’s been a lot of press on Ivy League sports and it’s been questioned how athletes without scholarships at a school where academics come first can compete with the paid titans of scholarship schools. While not a huge step, the winter sports awards were an opportunity to showcase the best athlete of the class of 2008 and arguably the best in the school. Needless to say, the opportunity was blown. You can argue about what athleticism is but if you look at how publications like Sports Illustrated and ESPN magazine define it, Lance Armstrong, a guy who admits to having absolutely no coordination, is often atop the athlete of the year lists. Regardless, the bottom line is track’s a sport and Lindsay dominates it, not just on a Yale level, not just on an Ivy League level but on a national level. And I just think it’s about time Yale fans realized that while we may never take a trip to the Rose Bowl and won’t be gracing this year’s Final Four, we have our own Marvin Williams racing around the track and there’s a lot to be proud of in that.

— Mazandi is a member of the Yale track team.