By Chris Megginson, Campbellsville University Sports Information Director
CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. -- The bond which forms between a student-athlete and his or her coach may take years to develop. At Campbellsville (Ky.), it took only one semester for a special bond to form between freshman swimmer Jenna Rueff and head coach Casey Smith – a bond cultivated outside their sport through a six-month, couch-to-marathon training regiment.
But to understand the depth of the bond, one must first understand the depth of the story.
Two summers ago, Rueffreceived a challenge card during a Christ In Youth (CIY) trip to Panama City Beach, Fla., which read “focus on becoming healthier and run a marathon before next summer.” The purpose of the card was to challenge the faith of its recipient, as they made a promise to God to fulfill what the card said. Little did she know, this promise would flip Rueff’s"normal" upside down and stretch her faith further than she’d imagined.
She began training for the 2012 Derby Marathon, qualified for the Kentucky High School state meet and was having a good senior year at Male High School in Louisville, Ky., until her marathon training began to reveal headaches and pain in her upper back shortly after Christmas 2011.
A MRI revealed a Chiari malformation, a rare defect caused when the brain dips into the spinal canal. Surgery immediately followed to relieve pressure on her spine, leaving her in bed for the next eight weeks and abruptly ending her competitive swim career - or so she thought.
In the spring of 2012, Rueff met Smith on a campus visit to CU. Not knowing if she could swim competitively anymore, Rueff was not interested in swimming in college, but Smith persisted a spot remained open if she wanted to give it a try.
"After I first met her I thought to myself, 'can I just sign your attitude and character to the team right now," said Smith.
Rueff eventually decided to join the team, despite not being able to compete in her best event, the butterfly.
Midway through the fall semester, Smith learned about the marathon, a challenge Rueff was still aiming to conquer. Having already had the urge to exercise more, Smith felt she was supposed to help train with Rueff and run the marathon also. She committed her free time to helping one of her student-athletes fulfill a promise to God, something she says she’d do for anyone who asks.
Over the next six months, the duo adapted a 20-week workout plan around the swimming schedule.
“Ideally you wouldn’t be training for two different things at the same time, but I really felt this was something that was more important than just a collegiate sport,” said Smith. “Spiritual commitment needs to come first, and I didn’t think it would hinder her dedication to the team or ability to be a part of the team training.”
Rueff admits she would have had trouble completing the challenge if it were not for Smith and her team.
“I have good support at home, but I feel like God knew where he needed me to be. He prepared me for this. He put me at Campbellsville so I could have Casey and my teammates to help me get through it,” she said.
Rueffeventually returned to the pool competitively, qualifying for the NAIA National Championships as a member of a relay team and even swimming the butterfly again by season’s end.
With one task down, the marathon remained. Her teammates joined in during offseason workouts, running their short runs for conditioning with their teammate and coach. On race day, April 26, 2013, some of those teammates joined in by running short distances along Rueff to provide encouragement.
One teammate in particular went the extra mile, eight to be exact.
During the fall, Rueff helped lead her roommate and teammate Bailey Foxworth through some tough times providing a daily example and answering questions when asked. In October, Rueff was there for Foxworth, when she decided to ask Christ into her life during the campus revival and again over the summer when Rueff baptized Foxworth in Louisville, Ky.
Foxworth, who was guided by an example of love, gave a little back on race day, surprising by Rueff by running the last eight miles with her. She ended up running enough to be considered a marathon relay runner, and receiving a participation medal.
“When I first met Jenna, there was something about her that I knew I was supposed to have this girl in my life … She’s been a really good example of what a follower of Christ looks like, and that’s been much more effective than anyone sitting me down and telling me about it,” Foxworth said.
Foxworth said she joined the race out of inspiration and pride in her teammate and coach.
“It was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen, and they’ shown me how strong God can be and that he can lead you through any of your toughest challenges,” she said. “I’m inspired to love Christ that much more.”
Upon reaching the finish line to the site of a banner reading “You did it! God is Able,”Rueff collapsed into Smith’s arms, sobbing.
“It’s Over!” they both declared.
But for this young swim team of mostly freshmen, it’s only just begun.
“I can’t imagine what God has for us next year. This is just year one,” Smith said. “It makes me excited to see what God is building … and what he’s going to do next."