Trinidad star excels on track

Alena Brooks will graduate next Thursday.

Minnesota's mid-distance runner Alena Brooks warms up before practice on Monday, May 6, 2013, at Bierman Field.

Jaak Jensen

Minnesota's mid-distance runner Alena Brooks warms up before practice on Monday, May 6, 2013, at Bierman Field.

Nate Gotlieb

Alena Brooks’ track career began because of her passion for netball — a sport similar to basketball.

Brooks, a senior on the Gophers women’s track team and a Trinidad and Tobago native, is preparing for her final Big Ten championships this weekend in Columbus, Ohio. She will graduate with a kinesiology degree next Thursday and will begin graduate school at the University of Minnesota this fall.

Brooks is one of 43 international athletes at the University, many of whom have crossed language and cultural barriers for the American student-athlete experience.

She was torn between two sports growing up in Trinidad, one of the country’s two islands off the coast of Venezuela. At 15, she captained her national under-16 netball team and started running track to improve her fitness for netball.

 “I’m so competitive that I wanted to stay and get this down,” Brooks said of her track career, “and eventually, I started doing better and better.”

Brooks was 16 when her father made her choose between netball and track. She chose track, but she said she would still sneak off to netball practice sometimes.

Brooks graduated from high school that year, and the next year she took the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination to further her education.

Matt Bingle, the Gophers’ director of women’s track & field and cross country, began recruiting Brooks when she was 17. He visited Brooks in Trinidad in November 2008.

Even though Brooks had offers from other American schools, she chose Minnesota because of Bingle’s early recruiting.

“I was kind of being loyal to him because most of the big schools came after I ran a fast time,” Brooks said.

She also knew somebody already at Minnesota — her junior national teammate Nyoka Giles. She and Brooks lived about five minutes away from each other in Trinidad and Tobago.

Brooks, who had never visited the University, enrolled at Minnesota in fall 2009.

Though she was excited to be at the University, Brooks said the transition wasn’t easy at first. She said her teammates had a hard time understanding her because of her dialect.

She also said it took a while to adjust to the way her new team practiced.

At her club in Trinidad, Brooks’ coach would make her and her teammates practice quietly.

“Before practice, we’d talk,” she said, “but during practice, there’s no talking about how the day was and all that. Whereas here, they’d be talking all the time.”

Bingle said Brooks has adjusted to the difference in styles over her time at Minnesota.

“It’s never easy to get used to new coaches, new environment, new food, new housing situation, all those types of things,” Bingle said. “But she did a good job with that and has really grown since her freshman year until now.”

Brooks made an immediate impact her freshman season, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors in the 600-meter run and the distance medley relay.

She broke through in the 400-meter run as a sophomore and finished third at the Big Ten indoor track championships.

An injury kept Brooks out for her junior indoor season, but she came back for the outdoor season that spring and qualified for an NCAA regional in two events.

This season, she placed fifth in the 600-meter run at the Big Ten indoor championships and won the 400-meter run at the Arkansas Invitational in March.

Brooks said she plans to continue running after college in the hopes of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics.