Western Michigan's Brown ready for takeoff
Takeoffs and landings are an important part of life for Alexis Brown.
Whether gliding over a hurdle or sailing over the high jump bar, they are key elements in her success as a member of the Western Michigan track and field team.
And they are an important aspect of her current quest to earn a private pilot's license, the first step toward accomplishing her goal of becoming a commercial airline pilot.
While many of her friends and competitors were flying to vacation destinations this summer, Brown was soaring through the Michigan skies in the cockpit of a Cirrus SR-20. She flew four times a week out of the W.K. Kellogg Airport in Battle Creek, Mich., also the home of the Battle Creek Air National Guard. Brown also fulfilled degree requirements by taking classes in both aviation and economics.
Once she passes the oral and flight test, she can move on to the next step of being rated to fly only by instruments.
"I want to be a flight instructor first, and then get a job as a pilot," Brown said. "Eventually, I want to make my way up to flying a 747."
The most exciting part of the summer was making her first solo flight. Brown's instructor caught her off guard by getting out of the plane after a brief landing at the Branch County Memorial Airport in Coldwater, but she was more than ready for the challenge. Since then, she has been alone in the cockpit two other times.
"I was really anxious my first time," Brown said about the 10-minute flight. "It was just me. It's a cool feeling being in there by yourself with no one helping you. It took a little time to get my landings down. It's hard until you get used to it. You have to be on the right glide path."
Brown's flight plan to becoming a pilot actually when she was in elementary school.
Flying with her family from Detroit to Atlanta, she visited the cockpit, met the flight crew and received her first pair of wings from the first officer. From that point on, Brown was hooked.
Years later, when it was time to choose a college, Western Michigan had everything she wanted. It is relatively close to her home in Otisville, Mich., and the aviation program is ranked as one of the top three in the nation.
The decision to attend WMU was made easier by having a couple of friends attending college in Kalamazoo. Brown knew Bronco teammate Elesha Logan from their days as high school track stars.
Thanks to a partial track and field scholarship, Brown has pursued her lifelong dream.
As you might expect, Brown has encountered a little turbulence while trying to balance her two time-consuming priorities. That's one of the primary reasons there are few student-athletes enrolled in the aviation program.
"It's been challenging," Brown said. "The program requires such a time commitment that very few athletes can do it. There is one other athlete in the program -- a men's soccer player -- so I don't have classes with any other athletes. If I need help, I can't go to one of my friends. I have to find extra time with an instructor, which is difficult because of track."
She credits her adviser with helping her strike the right balance between all of her commitments.
"My adviser, Jeorge Fierro, helps me out a lot," Brown said. "I wasn't sure how I was going to compete in track, fly and take classes all at the same time, but he's been helping me plan what classes I can take at what time."
A Michigan high school state champion in the 100- and 300-meter hurdles, Brown was recruited primarily to run the 400 hurdles. But when she arrived on campus, coach Kelly Lycan asked if she would be interested in the heptathlon. The heptathlon consists of seven events -- 100 meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meters, long jump, javelin and 800 meters -- making it necessary to train in each discipline.
"She's one of those people who are game for anything," Lycan said. "Alexis is a coach's dream. Sometimes you get talented people who don't work very hard. Other times you get people who work really hard who don't have a lot of talent. This girl has the talent and she works hard at it, too."
Not only did Brown choose one of the most mentally demanding majors at WMU, the heptathlon is one of the most physically demanding events in women's track and field.
"We are there before everyone comes to practice, we practice with the rest of the team, and then we usually have to stay after and practice more on different events," Brown said. "It's a little tiring at times."
That combined training helped her become better in the hurdles. At this year's Mid-America Conference outdoor track and field championships, Brown finished third in the 400 hurdles and fourth in the heptathlon, helping the Broncos to second place.
She also qualified for the NCAA regionals and came just short of advancing to the NCAA Division I Track & Field Championships.
Brown is on the verge of breaking the school record in the high jump, an event she never tried before arriving at WMU. And thanks to her commitment and competitive nature, it won't be long before she perfects the takeoff and landing.
"Alexis is almost cursed with her talent and ability because here she is, halfway through her collegiate career, and we're still trying to figure out what her best event is," Lycan said. "We barely scratched the surface the first couple of seasons."
Competition and classes will get tougher over the next two years, but it won't be anything that she can't handle. Whether focusing on aviation or athletics, the sky is the limit for Alexis Brown.
Dave Reed covers college sports for ESPN.com.