As Briana Stewart tore up the track at James Logan High School in Union City, scholarship offers poured into her mailbox. The star hurdler received letters from top Division I programs, including Oregon, LSU and Kansas.
But on decision day, she chose a school that had never participated in an NCAA track meet: Division II Academy of Art University.
“I wanted a career that I’d actually be interested in for the rest of my life,” said Stewart, who fell in love with the school’s fashion merchandising program.
Stewart took a leap of faith, joining the school’s inaugural women’s track and field team in 2008, and the move paid off when the Urban Knights won the NCAA Division II indoor track and field national championship in March. In doing so, the Urban Knights snagged a national title in their first year of Division II eligibility, and beginning Thursday, they will try to repeat the feat at the outdoor championships in Pueblo, Colo.
“I believed in this program,” Stewart said. “I’ve watched it grow from a seed to a tree. To see everybody’s dream coming to life is mind-boggling.”
Before the seed was planted, the idea of elite athletics at an art school seemed audacious to almost everyone who isn’t named Elisa Stephens.
In 2006, Stephens, the university president and granddaughter of the academy’s founder, decided to build an athletic department because she thought sports meshed perfectly with the culture of the school. Many of the academy’s programs require highly creative individuals to collaborate in groups, which mirrors the ethos of sports.
“I started to think: ‘What epitomizes teamwork more than anything? Sports,’” Stephens said.
She hired former 49ers tight end Jamie Williams to be the athletic director and, two years later, the school fielded teams in 13 intercollegiate sports, including track and field.
But after two seasons, Williams contemplated dropping the sport because the team was uncompetitive.
“I said, ‘I’ll give it one more shot,’” said Williams, who is now associate athletic director at Nebraska. “We hired coach [Charles] Ryan and, obviously, we immediately exceeded expectations.”
Ryan, 32, who grew up in Richmond and coached sprints and hurdles at Louisiana Tech, thought the school had all the ingredients to lure in top recruits: location, access to top high school runners and, most importantly, a unique curriculum.
“No other school in the NCAA has our majors and there’s a thirst out there among athletes,” Ryan said. “They don’t want to study English and political science and chemistry. They make those decisions because they feel like they don’t have any other choices.”
Like Stephens, Ryan believes that art and athletics are “mutually inclusive,” not exclusive, as popular stereotypes often suggest. As a student at UCLA, Ryan wanted to study film, but was told he needed to choose another major if he wanted to run track.
“I was discouraged from exploring my artistic side in college because it would have taken too much time away from sports,” Ryan said.
The school’s curriculum helped Ryan bring in Vashti Thomas, who is ranked as the nation’s sixth-best long jumper.
Thomas spent her first two years of college at Texas A&M and was unhappy in the classroom. She switched majors several times before transferring to the Academy of Art last year to study fine arts.
“I love to draw,” Thomas said. “The fact that I can do both of the things that I love here really inspires me.”
Thomas won indoor national titles in the long jump and 200 meters, and she will compete in five events this week at the outdoor championships. Through fine arts, the prospect for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics wants to obtain the drawing skills to become a tattoo artist.
“Hopefully at the next Olympics, I’ll be tattooing some rings on people,” said Thomas, who competed at the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials.
In addition to Thomas, Ryan recruited Julian Purvis, who previously ran at Michigan, Jenny Bergren, who competed at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and Keanna Moody, an all-state runner from Nebraska.
This week, the women are looking to add some extra color to their canvas by winning their second national title in less than three months and, in the process, Ryan thinks they can shatter a few stereotypes, as well.
“I hope, above all else, that we forever sever the stigma that creative people can’t be athletes,” he said. “That’s bigger than what any of us can do as individuals.”