Sumpter, 25, inspired entire running community

Sept. 21, 2015

UPDATE 9/22: Services have been set for 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 26 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Asti (26300 Asti Road, Cloverdale, Calif.).

Sarah Sumpter, a 2012 All-American and two-sport Big West Conference Athlete of the Year at UC Davis, passed away Monday morning after a five-year battle with cancer. She was 25. Sumpter had inspired the entire distance-running community when she set school records and garnered numerous track & field and cross country awards after a diagnosis of a brain tumor sidelined her for the 2010-11 school year.

Known to her friends and teammates as "Stump," Sumpter arrived at UC Davis in the fall of 2008, carrying with her the same promise and potential of an athletics department that only one year earlier had become an official member of NCAA Division I.

A state-champion cross country runner and Foot Locker All-American from Healdsburg High School, she was expected to be the next premier Aggie distance runner, quite literally following in the footsteps of another Redwood Empire alum-turned-Aggie standout, Kim Conley. Sumpter redshirted the 2008 cross country season but offered a glimpse of her running talent with a solid fourth-place finish at the Big West Conference track & field championships the following spring.

In the fall of 2009, her redshirt freshman cross country season, Sumpter continued to rise up to her billing: she finished third in her first collegiate race at Sacramento State, and crossed as the Aggies' top finisher at the Stanford Invitational and Indiana State Pre-National meets. Sumpter went on to capture the Big West Conference championship in only the program's second year of membership, added a Big West Women's Athlete of the Year nod, then placed 22nd at the NCAA West Regional.

Drew Wartenburg served as both an assistant and head coach for the Aggie cross country and track programs from 2009 through 2014. He recalls joking with his student-athlete that she didn't need him as a coach, as Sumpter was her own harshest critic. "She was as demanding of herself as anyone," said Wartenburg, who now heads the NorCal Distance Project. "It was what made her so gratifying and sometimes so frustrating as a coach, but at the same time, you can't ask for more from an athlete."

Sumpter's star continued to rise in the spring of 2010, with an all-conference finish in the 10K. Her season-best time of 34 minutes, 84.84 seconds, qualified her for the NCAA West Prelim meet and vaulted her among the school's all-time leaders.

Then on September 10, 2010, one day before the first cross country meet of the season, Sumpter was diagnosed with brain cancer during an otherwise routine doctor's appointment. She immediately went into surgery and had most, but not all, of the cancer removed. The remaining portion would be controlled through chemotherapy.

Sumpter was given strict orders not to run for the remainder of the cross country season. This was perhaps the toughest news of all. As she told Julia Savacool of ESPNW a year after her diagnosis, "running is my religion. It is who I am; it defines me. To not run -- I didn't know how to do that."

Through the same hard work and perseverance that made her such a successful runner before her diagnosis, Sumpter made her return. She competed as an unattached runner at the Aggie Open in March of 2011, just six months after her diagnosis and subsequent surgery. The race was 3,000 meters -- seven and a half laps around the track -- but the road to recovery she had traveled just to reach that point was nothing short of astronomical.

"When she came back [in 2011], she was a galvanizing figure," said Wartenburg. "People rallied around her as a point of strength and inspiration. She created a ripple effect throughout the entire college track and cross country community."

Sumpter's resolve allowed her to finish a stellar career that once seemed halted before it could truly begin. In cross country season, she posted three straight All-Big West Conference finishes, including two second-place showings at the league championships. In track and field, she broke a 29-year-old school record in the 10K, eventually surpassing it again with a 33:18.51 at the Stanford's Payton Jordan Invitational in 2013. In 2012, she captured Big West championships in each of the 5,000 and 10,000, earning her recognition as the conference's Track Athlete of the Year. A 12th-place finish at the NCAA West Prelim earned her a berth to the national meet, where she garnered second-team All-America accolades.

Sumpter also captured the 2011-12 Hubert Heitman Award as the university's outstanding female athlete of the year. Even without her incredible comeback story, her cross country and track exploits would have granted her that honor. When considering what she had overcome -- and continued to battle -- Sumpter's selection was a landslide decision for the awards committee.

Sumpter added yet another school record in the indoor 5K with her time of 16:28.21 at the Washington Invitational, surpassing benchmarks previously set by Conley and Kaitlin Gregg. Both that record and her outdoor 10K time still stand as Aggie program superlatives.

Off the course, Sumpter made the Big West Conference All-Academic rolls every year, and was selected as the school's representative for the Big West Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 2012. She submitted artwork to the Art of Athletes exhibit and read her poetry at the Aggie Idol charity talent show, the latter of which provided a moving reminder of the courage she maintained as both a student and athlete.

Yet according to Wartenburg, Sumpter was something of a reluctant hero when it came to her comeback. "She wanted to be seen as a runner and an athlete, not a cancer-surviving runner and athlete," he said. "She almost didn't understand how much her story touched and affected people."

Sumpter continued to compete after her graduation from UC Davis. She expanded her running repertoire to include half marathons in 2014, and began training for a full marathon in 2015 with the hopes of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials. Sumpter last competed in July of this summer before her condition began to deteriorate.

Earlier this month, two days before the team's road meet at UC Riverside, Sumpter's former cross country teammates dubbed September 10 "Stump Day." It was the fifth anniversary of her diagnosis back in 2010.

The Sumpter family has established a crowd-sourcing page called "Pacing For Sarah" on GoFundMe in the hopes of creating a Healdsburg High scholarship fund in Sarah's memory. The link for that site is: https://www.gofundme.com/sprintingforsarah.

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