BETHANY – If only Melissa Hampton’s running shoes could talk.
The Piedmont native and Piedmont High graduate will begin her senior season for Southern Nazarene University’s Cross Country and Track and Field team’s this fall. Which sounds ordinary enough, but the runner’s route to becoming a college athlete is far from ordinary.
Though Hampton played basketball growing up, she never played at Piedmont, but stayed involved in PHS athletics. She kept stats for the Wildcats baseball team during the seventh and eighth grade seasons. And when the chance to attend a summer course for athletic training came up, she took the opportunity and never looked back.
“I just fell in love with training,” she said. “It was a way for me to be around sports. I got to be around athletes all day and I got to be around my friends who were athletes. And I got to help people at the same time.”
Hampton picked up training full time in high school and decided to pursue a college degree in athletic training. When the time came to decide on a school, Hampton knew she wanted to stay close to home. Southern Nazarene in Bethany was the perfect fit of location and opportunity – SNU was one of only six schools in Oklahoma to offer her athletic training degree at the time – so Hampton headed for Bethany.
A year before Hampton had decided to follow her dream at Southern Nazarene; she decided to do something else – run – and run a lot. Hampton says she isn’t sure if she was channeling her inner Forrest Gump at the time or just wanted something to do, but the new hobby stuck.
“That’s my thing. That’s what I do for myself. I didn’t do it for any reason, it just happened, she said. “It’s just kind of my niche.”
The healthy hobby helped Hampton lose more than 100 pounds in a year. Soon, she began to train for half and full marathons. Something she continued during her freshman year at SNU.
Southern Nazarene Cross Country and Track and Field head coach Billy Miller noticed the freshman athletic trainer’s daily regimen, eight miles one day, 12 the next. So Miller decided to offer Hampton a shot to walk on to the track and cross country team’s as a sophomore. Hampton accepted, and almost instantly, Miller began to reap the rewards having Hampton on the squad brought.
Although she placed at several of SNU’s meets and events, Hampton’s true value didn’t come at competition, the coach says.
“She leads by example. That’s the big thing,” Miller said. “She’s always dependable, accountable; you don’t have to tell her twice to do something. She’s just one of those leaders; she’s very easy to coach.”
While competing, Hampton remained dedicated to her athletic training career and took the fall semester of her junior season off to take an athletic training internship at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. In Orlando, Hampton got the chance to train and evaluate athletes on a daily basis under the supervision of a certified trainer.
“It was a really great learning experience,” she said of the five month internship. “It was you by yourself making the decisions. It helped you develop your training skills and understand what you needed to work on.”
Now back at SNU, Miller says he expects Hampton to be one of SNU’s top seven runners this fall, in what’s likely to be her last season competing for the Crimson Storm. Although she’s a senior academically, Hampton has two years of athletic eligibility remaining, but she’s likely to pursue a graduate degree in athletic training somewhere else.
But that doesn’t mean she’ll ever stop running.
“It’s a sport you can do the rest of your life,” she said. “I won’t lie, one of the 5K’s I did over last Christmas break I finished second and the girl that was ahead of me was a 51-year-old that beat me by almost a full minute.”
Two years later, her path to having a role on the team serves as an inspiration to many of her teammates.
“I know of a few other members of our team that know about (her story) and it has inspired them,” Miller says. “It’s inspired them to be more disciplined in every aspect of life. Not just health, but faith and training.”
This summer, Hampton ran a half marathon in Miami and finished third in her age group and 16th among females in a field of more than 7,000 total runners. She’s just short of qualifying for the Boston Marathon and hopes she’ll be able to run in next year’s event. That’s something she couldn’t have imagined a few years ago, but none of it is, she admits. Her transformation is one that not even Hampton can’t fully put into perspective.
“If you had told me six years ago that I was going to drop 100 pounds and become a college athlete, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she said.