Edinboro Alumni Issue: Tabitha Bemis

Friday, September 28th, 2018 at 9:14 AM
Edinboro Alumni Issue: Tabitha Bemis by Chris Rosato Jr.

She could do everything.

Just about anything she tried, she excelled at.

It took an elbow injury and subsequent surgery to end her accomplished gymnastics career while in high school.

With her first passion no longer an option, Tabitha Bemis decided to pursue collegiate diving. She knew that sport just as well, finishing second in her senior year at the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League championships, and sixth at the state meet.

The University of Pittsburgh appealed to her, but a large university would prove difficult to pay for without an athletic scholarship.

Still, “I was hung up on the [Division I] mentality,” Bemis said.

Then, she won the long jump and 100-meter hurdles event at the PIAA state track and field meet in her senior year. A family friend called Doug Watts, Edinboro University’s former director of track and field for 44 years, to tell him there was a high school senior that might be swayed to run at a Division II school if she could get help paying for school.

The track program had just received some extra funding for an athletic scholarship, Bemis said, so Watts invited her to the campus. Bemis, who is now an assistant coach and career counselor at Susquehanna University, said the Mike S. Zafirovski Sports and Recreation Dome was a motivating factor in pursuing collegiate track and field at Edinboro.

“The indoor track and field facilities really floored me,” she said of the dome, which had been opened just one year prior.

She wrestled with the decision until after her high school graduation. She was reminded of the age-old question relating the size of fish to the size of their pond. She wanted something in the middle.

“I wanted a school small enough that I could get to go to [the track and field national championship meet], but still get to know all of my professors,” she recalled.

In her four years at Edinboro, she would continue her dominant performance. All told, she racked up six All-American finishes in her career while becoming the PSAC outdoor triple jump champion three years in a row, long jump champion twice and the 100-meter hurdles champion twice. She was also a PSAC champion in the indoor long jump, triple jump and 60-meter hurdles events.

Bemis received PSAC Field Athlete and Overall Athlete of the Meet honors after the indoor competition as well as Most Valuable Athlete and Field Athlete of the Meet at the outdoor championships in 2014, her final year of competition. She was also honored with Edinboro’s Nancy Acker Award, given to the outsanding senior athlete of the year.

Nationally, she was recognized as the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Division II Outdoor Atlantic Region Women’s Field Athlete of the Year in 2012, when she broke Edinboro’s school record in the long jump event, and in 2014, when she broke the school’s triple jump record. Both records remain.

Edinboro’s Associate Athletic Director Todd Jay said there is no doubt Bemis will be elected to Edinboro’s hall of fame once she’s eligible.

“She’s the most decorated female athlete we’ve ever had – on and off the field … there’s just never been a more decorated female athlete, maybe male or female, to be honest with you.”

Despite the external recognition and accolades, Bemis’ fondest memories of her time as a student-athlete came from personal accomplishments. She remembers her final meet, the 2014 NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field National Championships, for her All-American finishes in the triple jump and long jump, but also for shattering her personal records in every event she competed in.

“To have that closure and satisfaction knowing I had done everything I could was really special,” she said.

Bemis also made her education a priority, earning PSAC Top Ten honors six times, a conference record. The award is handed out to an athlete that succeeds both athletically and academically. She was once again recognized nationally as a member of the Capital One Academic All-America NCAA Division II Women’s Track and Field/Cross Country Team three times, once on the second team and twice earning first team honors.

Initially believing coaching was the direction she wanted her life to take, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Sports and Recreation Administration with a near-perfect 3.92 GPA.

Her direction changed, though, after one fateful day in Watt’s office. He handed her an application for the PASSHE Undergraduate Women’s Leadership Institute retreat and told her she was applying, she remembered. The retreat is a week-long event attended by two female students selected by each university in the state system.

She applied and attended later that year, returning full of knowledge and energy to help her fellow women and athletes at Edinboro. She began working as a student representative for Edinboro’s women’s commission, which works: “to create an equitable, just, and supportive campus environment” for women at Edinboro. In that role, she got to work with former Edinboro President Julie Wollman.

Wollman knew Bemis wanted to work hands-on with students, but knew she would make a strong asset in an administrative role. She suggested Bemis pursue a postgraduate degree in student affairs, which she explained would enable Bemis to positively impact students’ and student-athletes’ daily lives while at a university.

Because she graduated in the fall after her final year of NCAA eligibility and her graduate assistant position at Slippery Rock wouldn’t begin until the following fall, Bemis took up coaching jobs surrounding Edinboro at the high school and club level, in track as well as gymnastics, before learning in May of 2015 that she was the recipient of an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship. The $7,500 scholarship awards athletic and academic achievement and is given to 29 men and 29 women across all three NCAA levels in the fall, winter and spring.

Jay said her work with the women’s commission and with young local athletes was a deciding factor in her earning the scholarship, which has been awarded to just nine Edinboro student-athletes.

“Even outside of the classroom and outside of athletics, she was giving back to the [women’s] movement, for lack of a better term, and that’s what gets you postgraduate awards,” Jay said. “Not that they’re a dime a dozen, but you’ve got athletes and you’ve got scholar-athletes, and then there’s that third phase. It’s that volunteer service. It’s your involvement in the community. That’s what gets you that award.”

Without graduate school, Bemis may have continued coaching, which would not have satisfied her fully. Working out the finances to attend graduate school was tough until she learned she had won the award.

“I probably could have gotten a job [coaching track and field] otherwise, but I knew that I wanted more,” Bemis said of her decision to pursue a postgraduate degree. “I was going to figure out a way to pay for it regardless, but the [NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship] was a life-saver.”

She coached at Slippery Rock while earning her master’s degree in student affairs in higher education to see which one she would like best. After she graduated in 2017, the decision still wasn’t clear. She continued as a volunteer coach for The Rock until January, when she began working at Susquehanna University as a career counselor.

In her current position, she was tasked with helping students find their course in life, just as Bemis’ course was guided by several influential figures along the way. She said she’s constantly looking for potential in students that they cannot see. It’s a way to pay it forward after Watts and Wollman took an interest in her future, she said.

Though her job originally did not involve working with student-athletes directly, her supervisor saw the interest Bemis still had in athletics – she had begun volunteering as an assistant track and field coach – and gave Bemis the freedom to develop services tailored to the student-athlete experience. She said that experience differs slightly from Edinboro or other universities because Susquehanna competes at the Division III level.

“Students here are realistic,” she said. “They’re here to compete, but know they’re here for an education and career.”

As the fall semester begins around the country, Bemis is now an assistant track and field coach, a promotion from her previous volunteer status, working to develop a student-athlete career development program. She wants to introduce student-athlete advancement workshops and help teach Susquehanna’s student-athletes how to leverage their unique collegiate experience.

Jay said he knew Bemis had the potential to cause positive change in whatever role she took on, and advocated for Edinboro’s administration to find a job for her either in athletics or student affairs, but was told budget constraints made that impossible.

“She loves it[at Susquehanna] and I’m really happy that she does love it, but it pains me every day that she’s still not a Fighting Scot,” Jay said.

As Edinboro continues to try to improve its image after a rocky few years, they have embarked on a new campaign proclaiming Edinboro University the choice for “Those who strive.” Bemis watched the new television commercial for the university’s campaign and said the sound of bagpipes playing – as related to the university as an alma mater, she said – still brings tears to her eyes every time she hears them.

“I love Edinboro,” she said. “I look back on my experiences there with fondness.”

Chris Rosato Jr. is the sports editor for The Spectator. He can be reached at sports.spectator@gmail.com.

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