One of the greatest athletes ever to pass through the halls at Carroll County High School, Rebecca Russell Buchanan was a track and field superstar for the Cavaliers before going on to an illustrious career at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. As a CCHS senior in 1988, she won three state championships, setting new state records at the time in the 400 meter dash and triple jump, to go along with a state title in the 200 meter dash as she helped the Cavaliers finish second in the state as a team.
While at UNC, she was an eight-time All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference Champion and record holder. She was a finalist in the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials and a member of the 1997 U.S. World Championship Team. She was also ranked in the top 10 for the U.S. in the 400 meter hurdles for three years. In 2002, she was selected as a member of the ACC’s 50th Anniversary Women’s Outdoor Track & Field team. Now an assistant professor at Emory & Henry College, we caught up with Buchanan this week to talk about her time at CCHS and UNC.
What year did you graduate from Carroll County? 1988
Where did you attend college?
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (1988-1992) (B.A. in Sociology); University of Tennessee, Knoxville (1993-1994) (M.S. in Sports Management); University of Tennessee, Knoxville (2008-2011) (Ph.D. in Education)
Family members? Parents: Ted & Mary Russell, Fancy Gap, VA; Sister & Brother-in-law: Vickie and Greg Yonce, Hillsville, VA; Spouse: Frank Buchanan, Meadowview, VA; Children: Connor (Age 14), Maggie (Age 11), & Grant (Age 6)
Current Occupation: Assistant Professor, Emory & Henry College
What is your favorite memory in athletics? There are so many! Just being a part of an ACC championship team was amazing! The summer following my freshman year at Carolina, I made the U.S. Junior National team and traveled to Argentina. It was my first trip outside the United States and I have wonderful memories of that experience! The NCAA Championships at Duke were fun because I had friends and family attending the meet. Setting a personal best at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Atlanta was a wonderful memory other than the fact that I just missed making the team.
What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you while running? I was traveling and competing at various track and field meets throughout Europe. In addition to earning money for their individual performances, athletes could also get paid well for pacing another race or being the “rabbit.” My agent had scheduled me to pace a race in Italy. However, my name was somehow left off the list. The Italian officials, all males, did not speak English and were unable to understand when I tried to explain to them that I was the “rabbit.” I finally decided to jump up and down like a bunny. The officials laughed heartily and immediately understood. I was allowed on the track and was quite happy to earn my stipend.
Speaking of embarrassing moments, tell us about the time you forgot your shorts in biddy basketball? I was warming up for a basketball game at Hillsville Intermediate. I came over to the sidelines and took off my sweatpants in preparation for the game to begin. My coach, Larry Dalton, approached me and quietly said, “I need you to put your sweatpants back on.” I replied, “Why, coach? The game is getting ready to start!” He said, “You forgot to wear your shorts.” I immediately burst into tears. My mother was in the stands and comforted me. However, she quickly encouraged me to focus on my teammates and the game rather than myself. As a result, I was able to borrow some shorts and play the game. It was truly a life lesson. I am forever grateful for her tough love and perspective of focusing positively on the future when you can’t change the past.
What was it like to run track for such a prestigious program at the University of North Carolina? It was an incredible opportunity! However, always in the back of my mind was the thought that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” I placed a lot of pressure on myself. Going into my freshman year at Carolina, Coach Anderson (CCHS track coach) encouraged me to focus on improving my individual times rather than winning races. It was great advice that worked well as I transitioned from high school to college. The academic rigor at UNC was also challenging as I learned to balance academics and athletics.
As a Tar Heel, were you required to take a freshman course titled “Despising Duke 101,” or something to that effect? The freshman course titled “Despising Duke 101” was a non-traditional course held on Franklin Street any time we won a basketball game against Duke.
In doing research, we found that you never ran the 800 meters at Carroll County, yet went on to set the school record in that event at UNC. I guess you are a pretty quick learner, huh? You are correct in that I had never competed in the 800 meters until UNC. I’ve just always enjoyed new challenges. Coach Anderson wrote in my CCHS senior yearbook, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” There is a tremendous amount of truth to that quote.
You missed qualifying for the 1996 Olympic Games by one spot in the 400 meter hurdles, but we’re told you hated hurdles. How can you be so good at something you don’t like? I never hated the hurdles because I had never attempted to hurdle until my senior year at UNC. The current 400 meter hurdler had graduated at the end of my junior year. My coach, Dennis Craddock, asked me if I would be interested in trying the event during the outdoor track and field season of my senior year. I have always liked athletic challenges, so I said yes. Learning how to hurdle was intense but enjoyable because it provided a new challenge both mentally and physically. I was able to set the ACC record in that event and help our team win the conference championship. It’s interesting to me now because there is such an emphasis on early specialization in youth sport, which often leads to burnout. I think my success was linked to a drive and passion for something new and challenging that I’d never tried before.
How cool was it to be a member of the U.S. National Team? Being a member of the U.S. National Team competing in Athens, Greece was an amazing experience. I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility and pride traveling outside the United States to compete on an international stage. I feel strongly that traveling abroad, for whatever reason, helps to strengthen the understanding and appreciation for what it means to be an American citizen. I also still remember my first experience as a member of the U.S. Junior National Pan American team in Argentina. During opening ceremonies, the U.S. team started chanting “USA” as we walked through the corridor and into the stadium. Everyone’s voices echoed off the walls and it was something I’ll never forget.
Is it true your father would have been an All-American at UNC if he would have been allowed to race you there in his cowboy boots? Absolutely! My father actually outran me when I was in high school! He was wearing cowboy boots and I was wearing my running shoes! It’s funny but in actuality, both of my parents have always been very athletic. During my youth they would invite other family members over and we would sometimes find ourselves playing volleyball in the backyard (under lights) until 1:00 am.
Do you still run these days to keep in shape? I still run now to keep both my body and mind in shape. The evidence linking the benefits of exercise on the brain is fascinating. Running also helps me to feel empowered as, like so many other women, I struggle to adequately balance a career while also being a wife and mother. One of my goals is constantly striving to teach youth that physical activity, whether competitive or non-competitive, has wonderful lifelong benefits!
While at UNC, did you get to know Dean Smith? I did not know Dean Smith personally. However, I was hired by Coach Guthridge as a lifeguard and worked during the summer at the Dean Smith Basketball Camp.
How would you describe your time as an athlete at Carroll County High School, both in track and girls’ basketball? My time as an athlete at Carroll County High School was a fantastic experience! I will always cherish the laughter and memories with teammates and coaches. I still remember dissolving into tears after my last CCHS basketball game. The coaches (Steve Anderson, Pat Driscoll, Larry Dalton, Debbie Beamer, Eddie Ayers, Ron Quesenberry, Sanders Henderson & Marc Quesenberry) were very supportive and helpful in molding me as an athlete and a person. I am forever indebted to the time they spent coaching and mentoring me! I am also grateful to their families because I know it was time spent away from them.