Rita Arndt and the Bulls can’t seem to stay away from each other.
A member of the cross-country team and a distance runner for the track squad, Arndt earned her degree in public relations in 2001. She then went back home to Michigan and was all ready to head off to grad school. However, when Bulls coach Greg Thiel offered Arndt the opportunity to be an assistant, it was an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“I applied last year to Colorado and got accepted and was planning on (going to grad school there) this year, and then Greg called me in April,” Arndt said. “It just happened to be my first year back in Michigan, and it was the middle of April and it was snowing. It was snowing torturously. I had been dealing with snow all year long, and it was cold and bitter. He called and was like, ‘It’s 70 degrees out here. You want to be a coach?’ ‘Yeah, I sure do want to do it.'”
“I guess I always really wanted to be in athletics,” Arndt said. “I did it at the college level. I didn’t know how to parlay that into a professional career. Academics is a lot more obvious, so I applied to grad school, and I’ll get my academics done, and I figured somehow the athletics end will fall into place.”
It couldn’t go more according to plan for Arndt as she gets reunited with Thiel and some of her former teammates.
“We are extremely excited about Rita joining our staff here at South Florida,” Thiel said. “One of the great things about Rita is that she brings so much energy and enthusiasm that it will certainly be contagious for the rest of the team.”
Arndt seems assured that her former teammates will now be able to accept her in a new role.
“I don’t think it will be a problem with the people I’ve run with because they’re good kids,” Arndt said. “I think they respect me, and they know I respect them. That’s the biggest obstacle you’ll find in coaching is earning respect, and I already have that with them. And it’s mutual.”
Arndt definitely has an advantage since she is very familiar with the Bulls’ schedule. She began her career at Michigan State, but after one year and a redshirt season, trouble with the NCAA got her coach fired. Faced with an uncertain future with the Spartans, Arndt decided to transfer and looked at USF on a whim. With the Bulls, Arndt helped the cross-country team make three straight NCAA championship appearances. Arndt also ran the 1,500 and the 3,000 meters for the track team, as well as the indoor mile. From her days as a competitive runner for the Bulls, Arndt realizes the pressure and fatigue her runners will have to endure.
“They show up next week, and they’ll be here until July,” Arndt said. “So, basically they have a month and a half, maybe, of downtime for themselves all year long. When you talk about mental toughness and the ability to stay focused and motivated, those are phenomenal accomplishments for these athletes.
“Every week, every day, it’s, ‘What am I going to do to make myself a better athlete today?’ And that’s a conscious decision everyday,” Arndt said.
“It’s something I did for five years of my college career. If it means that much to you, you’ll make the hard choices and keep that focus. When it comes down to it, that’s what’s going to win the meet – whoever is going to persevere mentally.”
Arndt continues to display her mental focus, as the 23-year-old intends to continue competing as she works toward a master’s degree and tutors the Bulls’ runners.
“There’s a lot I want to do, but I don’t want to spread myself too thin,” Arndt said. “I just moved down here. I just got engaged, and I just bought a new house. I have a new job, so there’s a lot going on already. And I definitely want to run a marathon. Actually my high school coach, who I have a great relationship with, is doing the Boston Marathon this spring, and he wants me to do it with him, so that’s a possibility still because I qualify for it.”
Whether Arndt can accomplish all of that remains to be seen, but she already has identified her first goal as a coach.
“Probably the most important thing I would like to see myself effect in these kids is just to continue to love their sport,” Arndt said. “Running is unique – it’s something you can do for as long as you live. But I’ve seen too many times in other situations where athletes, by their senior year, are burned out of running. They don’t want to run anymore, and they’re just on the team because it’s just paying for their scholarship. But it’s not really the love of the sport.
“When I graduated from college, I was like, ‘Oh god, what am I going to do?’ So I went out and trained for a marathon because I love running that much,” Arndt said. “After that, I did some more road races because that’s how much I love the sport.
“They already love the sport, if I can keep that fire ignited, then that’s probably the biggest impact I’d want to have,” Arndt said. “I don’t want them to be burned out on running because of me.”
Fueled with that kind of love for the sport, Arndt is passionate about where she wants to help lead the Bulls.
“I’m a very proud person,” Arndt said. “Probably, I’ve won a lot of races just on stupid pride because I refused to be beat. I have a lot of pride in USF, and the track team and the cross-country team, so of course I just want it to flourish and grow.
“It’s kind of one of those things if you want something done right, do it yourself. It’s in my hands now, and I have 100 percent confidence in myself because I refuse to fail.”
Contact Oracle Sports Editor Anthony Gagliano at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com