The best athlete in Duke's incoming freshman class doesn't stand out in a crowd. At 6 feet and 165 pounds he doesn't have the size of a football or basketball player. But when he steps onto a track, Curtis Beach is instantly recognizable, because he's winning everything in sight.
The freshman from New Mexico holds the national high school record in the decathlon, a combination of ten track and field events. When Beach scored 7,909 points in the decathlon in April at the Arcadia Invitational, he broke the old high school record by almost 500 points.
"We have a couple other great recruits, but Curtis Beach is by far the marquee recruit in the class," head coach Norm Ogilvie said. "He is certainly the best all-around athlete in the country this year, and probably one of the top recruits ever coming out of high school."
To put it in terms the basketball-crazed Duke community can relate to, Ogilvie says recruiting Beach is like getting Grant Hill.
Beach's athletic potential comes from his incredible versatility. His high school state championships range from the long jump, high jump, pole vault and hurdles to the 100-, 200- and 800-meter running events. He also helped his high school win a team state title in cross country during track's off-season.
"I started out as a cross-country runner...but in middle school, my coach James Ciccarello challenged me to do every event from the 100 meters to the 3000 meters," Beach said. "He wanted me to do hurdles, the throws, high jump, everything. And I did, and I was pretty good at all of them, and I enjoyed them all.. [The decathlon] ended up being a perfect fit, because I still can't choose just one event, and I just love them all."
As Beach progressed through high school, his performances earned him the attention of the top collegiate track and field programs in the country, including Texas A&M and Oregon, the 2009 national champions in the indoor and outdoor seasons, respectively.
Yet Beach turned down offers from both schools to come to Duke, a program whose name is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the others in track and field circles.
Beach chose Duke in part because of its recent addition of multi-events coach Shawn Wilbourn, a former NFL player and 8,200-point scoring decathlete who Beach said shares his passion for track and field in all its events.
"He has that drive to be the very best," Beach said. "Not just the best in the ACC or the very best in the country, but the best, period, and I love that."
Wilbourn is just one of the factors that attracted Beach to Duke. According to Ogilvie, since Kevin White became the new athletic director in 2008, the track program has had more freedom with scholarships and recruitment, going beyond the distance events to put together a stronger, more diverse team than in previous years. This change has markedly increased the versatility of the program as a whole.
Tyler Clarke, a fifth-year senior who this year placed 18th at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the decathlon, could easily relate to the recruit, because he had had been faced with a comparable decision when choosing between schools.
"Tyler had to make a very similar choice five years ago, being an Oregon native, and his final choice was between Oregon and Duke," Ogilvie said. "So he was able to tell Curtis, 'You know, when I had to make this decision, I chose Duke for the academics and what I would be able to do beyond Duke. But with you, you don't even have to do that.'"
The addition of Wilbourn to the Blue Devil coaching staff bridged the gap between the school's athletic and academic components-and Beach felt that he didn't have to sacrifice athletics for the sake of academics by choosing Duke.
Beach recognized the importance of getting an education in addition to pursuing his track career, and is excited about the educational opportunities available to him in Durham.
"What I'd like to do in particular is go into the Markets and Management program," Beach said, "Learn about business and sports marketing, and maybe do some law stuff, getting all the little parts of the Duke education that can help me achieve my ultimate goals outside of athletics and outside of school.... I'm going to explore the liberal arts curriculum and a wide array of things."
In the long term, Beach's goal is to become the CEO of USA Track & Field, the sport's governing body. He hopes to use the position to help track and field gain popularity and influence in a country dominated by football, basketball and baseball.
His dream has already taken a few steps toward becoming a reality, as the current CEO invited Beach to shadow him for a day at USA national trials in Eugene, Oregon, at the end of June.
However, Beach recognizes that interests change, and dreams fade. Part of the value of a Duke education to him is its practicality, especially if he decides to pursue a career outside the athletic world.
"I really feel that [a Duke education] gives any future employer the idea that you can handle a rigorous education," Beach said, "and that you're able to push yourself very, very hard, not just athletically but academically, and that you care about your future outside of athletics. Track aside, that is a very big reason in why I picked Duke."
Beach's summer is filled with his final meets before putting on a Duke jersey, but in between he plans to train in preparation for making the transition to the college decathlon in the fall.
The differences between the high school and collegiate events include heavier throwing implements and higher hurdles.
"Curtis, fortunately, has had some experience with the heavier weights-not a lot, but a little bit," Wilbourn said. "The high school shot put weighs 12 pounds, and the college shot put weighs 16 pounds.so we'll gradually work him up to that 16-pound shot. He has to get stronger, and there are some technical issues in the throws, but as the throws improve we should see a big jump in the scoring."
Wilbourn hopes for Beach to be competitive starting this winter in the heptathlon, the indoor relative to the decathlon, and to compete in the ACC and NCAA meets in both the indoor season as well as the outdoor decathlon come spring. Ogilvie, though, says that a primary concern is keeping Beach injury-free throughout the demanding training of a decathlete.
If they can keep him healthy, Beach's future coaches are confident that he will be successful. While he might be driven to over-train, Beach isn't known to come up short in effort.
"He's an extremely focused and motivated guy," said Ogilvie. "He doesn't just want to be the best in New Mexico or the best in college-he wants to be the best in the world. And there are not too many guys who have the courage at his age to say that."
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