The 2016-17 indoor track season had all but drawn to a conclusion. The setting was Napersville, Ill. The event: the NCAA Track and Field Division III Championships. Alex Niemiec sprinted towards the high bar, his dark blue eyes filled with anticipation, lips pursed above a light brown goatee. He left his feet and traveled upward, his right shoulder blade, beneath a maroon and white jersey and inked in a wing tattoo, passed parallel to the pole.
As he sailed beyond the bar and braced for his landing, the senior from Chicopee Mass. did not ponder what “could have been.” Niemiec is happy how things worked out.
He does not dwell upon the time when he first injured his hamstring. Yet Niemiec’s brother Robert still remembers the day when his younger sibling sustained his first major sports injury. The two of them were competing for Chicopee Comprehensive High School in the long jump at Ludlow High, Robert a senior, Alex a sophomore. The Ludlow runway had seen its better days. Its board for the long jump event, which is an athletes point in takeoff, was indented in its center rather than being leveled with the ground.
Robert was able to complete his jump without issue. But his brother was not so lucky. “When I jumped, my foot got caught [on the indent], so my body elevated but my foot didn’t, and my hamstring just kind of gave out,” said Alex.
“I apparently didn’t hit it the way [Alex] did,” Robert recalled. “And he just wrecked his leg. We never knew [the severity of the injury] because he never got it treated. That was probably the worst mistake he made in his track career.”
Looking back, if he was to do it differently, Alex Niemiec would have looked into treatment for his hamstring. But it had been only two years since he had dropped baseball in favor of track. Robert was able to convince his younger brother to take up sprints and jumps, which was supposed to prepare him for life on the high school diamond. At the time of his injury, Alex was still finding himself as a track athlete.
“I wasn’t as good at the sport at the time,” he said. “If I knew where I’d eventually go with it, I would have probably gone to get [my hamstring] rehabbed. It wasn’t as serious of a sport to me at the time.”
Niemiec would eventually recover from his spill at Ludlow and become a force in high school track. He would go on to break each of Robert’s records in hurdles and long jump, and have his big brother’s number in each event he took on. All of them, except one. “He let me keep triple jump,” said Robert jokingly.
Yet despite his success, and a scholarship offer from AIC, concern still lingered regarding the health of his hamstrings.
“Our dad didn’t want Alex up the creek without a paddle,” said Robert. “He didn’t want him to go to AIC, hurt himself and then lose the scholarship.”
Niemiec understood that the risk to compete in Division I track and field would be too great. With this in mind, he began a search for a school that would give him an opportunity to compete, but also provide him with a strong academic foundation, and location close to Chicopee.
Much to the delight of then-track and field head coach Ken Klatka, Niemiec learned of Springfield College through Chicopee Comprehensive assistant track and field coach, and Springfield College alum Matt Krakowski.
“I knew he was an outstanding athlete in high school,” said Klatka. “I really, really tried to recruit him to come to Springfield, and he’s done extremely well since he’s been here.”
As Niemiec anticipated, injuries to his hamstrings afflicted him consistently. He has been sidelined each season: twice in his freshman year at the conclusion of indoor season and conclusion of outdoor season, once in his sophomore year for the start of outdoors, and the majority of his junior year, which prevented him from competing in both indoor and outdoor nationals. Each instance was related to a hamstring injury.
When healthy however, he has proven to be a formidable opponent for his Division III competition. To begin his first year as a collegiate athlete, Niemiec earned first place in seven consecutive events. Following a second and third place finish in the 60 meter dash, he rattled off an additional five straight first place finishes. Entering the indoor national championships, Niemiec finished in the top ten in his event in his last 28 consecutive attempts. This year, Niemiec competed only once in indoor competition – the Springfield College season opener in December. Although he appeared in only one meet, Niemiec grabbed a pair of first place finishes in the 60 meter dash and high jump to qualify for indoor nationals. He returned for the trip to Napersville, and capped off his indoor collegiate track career with a high jump leap of six feet, nine inches good for second place.
Klatka also acknowledged Niemiec’s desire to find a career for himself for life after track and field.
“He changed over to the physical education major [from history], and I think he’s going to be a great teacher-coach someday,” he said. “[Here], he wasn’t lost in the crowd, he wasn’t just a number. By being at Springfield rather than a Division I school I think it really helped him formulate who he wants to be.”
Whether competing in Division I or Division III athletics, it never mattered to Niemiec. As long as there was a sense of competitiveness, something that Niemiec says he will find difficult for him to replace when his career finishes.
“In track you do what you do, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “If I was to jump 25 feet, it would be just as good as jumping 25 feet in Division I. It’s all just what you do. DIII is still wicked competitive, there’s a lot of schools at a lot of competition.”
As the competition shifts to outdoors, and Niemiec’s career enters its final phase, the senior has no regrets.
“It’s all worked out well,” he reflected. “I wanted to stay close to home, I wanted a good education with good facilities and coaching staffs. I feel like if I went Division I, it wouldn’t have been the same. Track [alone was] not going to pay the bills when I’m older.”