Brooks stars for Gophers in final year

Alena Brooks hails from Trinidad but has found a home with the Gophers.

Gophers  middle-distance runner Alena Brooks warms up before practice Monday, May 6, 2013, at Bierman Field.

Daily File Photo; Jaak Jensen

Gophers middle-distance runner Alena Brooks warms up before practice Monday, May 6, 2013, at Bierman Field.

Jack Satzinger

Matt Bingle traveled to the island nation of Trinidad in 2008. That’s where he first saw Alena Brooks run.

Brooks had lived in Trinidad her entire life. But Bingle, the director of women’s track and field at the University of Minnesota, convinced her to move to the upper Midwest and run track at the Division I level.

“Coach Bingle was one of the first coaches interested in me,” Brooks said. “I was ready to come here and was loyal to him. The next year, more coaches started coming, but Coach Bingle saw the talent in me before everyone else.”

Now opposing Big Ten coaches have to compete with Brooks’ talent on the track.

In last week’s season-opening meet, the Northwest Open, Brooks set a meet record in the 600-meter run (1:29.65).

That time is currently best in the nation in that event. For her efforts, Brooks earned a Big Ten accolade as Indoor Track Athlete of the Week.

“It’s an exceptional mark — for this early, it’s fast,” Bingle said. “It’s also an event that nobody else in the country runs. It’s a Big Ten event, not an NCAA event.”

Brooks’ early success this season can be attributed to her training regimen.

She went back to Trinidad for winter break and trained outdoors. Brooks said it’s much easier to train in the warmer Caribbean climate.

“She’s in a lot better shape because she was really able to continue training while at home, whereas here, the kids go home and they’re on bikes and treadmills,” Bingle said. “She was on an outdoor track.”

But Brooks isn’t excelling solely because she trained outdoors this winter. She also relishes competition.

Bingle said Brooks is competitive in everything she does — even thumb wrestling.

Her competitive nature stood out in the offseason when the team participated in boot camp.

“At boot camp, Bingle puts us into little teams, and we have little competitions,” Brooks said. “I don’t care; I just want to win. I’ll be yelling at my little team, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’”

That drive and competitive spirit has Brooks thinking big this season and beyond.

Brooks said her ultimate goal is to run in the Olympics. Bingle said it’s possible because she’s still young and very driven.

“It means so much to me,” Brooks said. “I think I just have to stay focused and continue doing what I’m doing.”