He came to Lipscomb from Morgantown, West Virginia and he left four years later for a career in submarines and stints in Hawaii, Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, and the U.S. Navy recruiting office in Atlanta. This former Track/Cross Country runner and his wife are now raising their young family in Marietta, Georgia. Axel Spens, quite possibly our version of “the most interesting man in the world,” spent a few minutes this week with Lipscombsports.com.
What years did you compete for Lipscomb?
I ran Cross Country for Kent Johnson from Fall 1990 through Spring 1994. (Editor’s note: In addition to earning a place on the NAIA Academic All-America team for Cross Country, Axel Spens was chosen MVP for Track in 1993)
Why did you attend Lipscomb?
I was a basketball player in high school when our Cross Country coach, Jeannie Dragomire, saw me running at school and recruited me to join her team. I enjoyed running, and apparently because I’m tall, I was pretty good at Cross Country as a junior and senior in high school. As I began looking for a college, I tossed her the challenge to find me a scholarship somewhere. Her children had attended Lipscomb and her son, Dan, was a friend and two years ahead of me. So she called Coach Kent Johnson, who offered me a partial scholarship to be a Bison.
To sweeten the deal, I also had a partial scholarship with the U.S. Navy, yet there were no schools close to Morgantown that offered a qualifying program. In Nashville, Vanderbilt ran a very good ROTC program, so even an 18-year-old kid like me could figure it out. I moved to Nashville, enrolled as a student at Lipscomb, and was admitted into the ROTC program at Vanderbilt.
What is your favorite athletic memory at Lipscomb?
Two memories come to mind right away. The first involves a tremendous feeling of accomplishment I remember from November 1990 when we – a group of mostly freshmen who had only known each other and run together for a few months – qualified for a trip to the NAIA National Championships in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was chilly and windy, but we did extremely well and we had a great time together. Looking back, it was a big deal for us to qualify and be able to travel 550 miles away for a national competition of the best runners in the country, especially since we finished so well.
My second memory is an event that was not quite as successful, but equally entertaining. For a track meet in the spring, Coach Johnson signed me up to run in Steeplechase, an event that includes running and jumping – typically over barriers and often a water hazard. I was 6-foot-3 and considered myself fairly agile, but as I warmed up I came to one barrier and placed my foot on top to jump over. I tripped on top, and instead of finding water on the other side, I found an empty pit – into which I promptly face-planted. That was my baptism into Steeplechase, and of course the sprinters who witnessed it had a great time with the ‘road rash’ I wore on my forehead for the next few days. I ran Steeplechase the rest of the season and never fell again, so I suppose I learned a good lesson: when you fall, get back up and keep going … and learn from your failures.
Who influenced your athletic career at Lipscomb?
I had some very good support, beginning with my coaches – Jeannie (Dragomire) and Kent (Johnson). Danny (Dragomire) was an inspiration to me, and Wes Williams – who is now a physical therapist in Memphis – was a teammate who had a car on campus. He constantly asked me how things were going, if I wanted to get something to eat, and if I wanted a ride to church. He didn’t know it, but at the time I wasn’t a strong believer – I was a “doubter.” To avoid him, I got a job at Fox’s Donut Den working on Sunday mornings, but Wes was so perfectly consistent. He began to come around on Sunday afternoons to ask if I wanted a ride to worship Sunday night. He really had a lot of impact on me, and today he is one of my dearest friends.
One more teammate who was pretty important to my story was Wes Sherman. Wes was another friend of Danny’s and the captain of the Cross Country team. He actually baptized me my sophomore year in December of 1991 and later served as the best man in my wedding. And finally, Willie Steele, who is back at Lipscomb now, was a great friend, motivator, and fellow Pittsburgh sports fan!
What’s your favorite non-athletic memory from your time here?
In those days Scott McDowell was the head resident for High Rise dorm. Guys frequently tried to get around rules, but Scott knew well how to watch out for us. My first roommate was “invited to not return” after pushing a window out after curfew one night. Also a high school friend of mine visited one weekend from Auburn, and Scott apparently suspected us enough to give both of us breathalyzer tests. Thankfully, even at that age I was smart enough to realize I didn’t want to jeopardize what I was trying to accomplish with bad decisions, so I kept my nose clean.
I worked at the Donut Den, and I have lots of fond memories from it. Dr. (Norman) Fox was very good – he worked with our schedules as students and athletes, and he let us see what it was like to run a business the right way. He gave us plenty of grace, and it was a great experience. Our classmates would often come visit at work, and we enjoyed showing them how doughnuts are made – it was pretty fun.
Also, I served as a student assistant my senior year for Steve Prewitt in the English Department, and I remember what a great listener he was. I learned a lot from him, and I really enjoyed the chance to work on campus, earn some money, and learn from respectable individuals. I appreciated the fact that he saw something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself. I’m grateful for that, and I will always appreciate him for believing in me and motivating me.
What are the most valuable lessons you learned in your time at Lipscomb?
I get to speak to a lot of young people today, and I sense that what hasn’t changed in the years since I was a student: we all want to make a difference. We all want to positively impact those around us, and that is a noble goal.
I learned in my four years at Lipscomb to ignore any fears of failure and to look for ways to challenge myself. It’s so easy to look at experiences and consider them a waste of time, but I look now at what could be considered failures and I appreciate the effort I invested and the lessons I learned.
Don’t be afraid to fail and be willing to challenge yourself – don’t get too hung up on outcome. Have a vision for what you want to accomplish, pursue it, and be open to feedback. The best lessons I’ve learned occurred when I didn’t get what I initially hoped for.
Here’s one more thing: At the time I didn’t fully appreciate the fact that we were required to attend chapel, but that’s now a treasure for me. I’m so glad we had daily worship. I’m thankful for the fact that I’m glad I wasn’t afraid to change. When I first stepped on campus, I was definitely an outsider – it was foreign to many of my beliefs and behaviors. But I can honestly say now: it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m so impressed with Lipscomb’s ability – perhaps today even more than when I was there – to positively impact young people and to motivate them to make a difference in the world.
Who were your favorite professors?
Richard Goode for his always interesting delivery of history and even more exceptional ability to guide students in forming stronger messages and positions.
Lin Garner, who is brilliant in the classroom and has a real strong spirit of peace. Because I have high confidence in her leadership at the school and am excited to see how the students benefit from her exemplary character.
What do you do now?
I’m an account manager covering the southeast for Instrumentation Laboratory, a medical device company that helps hospitals and healthcare providers enhance patient care and efficiency.
Tell us about your family:
My wife Susan was a Lipscomb student and a friend of Wes, but ironically I never met her on campus. After we both left school, my first Navy assignment was in Orlando, Florida and that’s where we first met – at Concord Street Church of Christ. We dated and we’ve now been married 22 years. We have two children – Adam (11) and Amanda (8) – and we had a 3-year-old son, Matthew, who passed away in 2004 from brain cancer.
FAST FIVE FINISH:
- Favorite food: Sweet potatoes
- Favorite scripture: 2 Corinthians 5: 17 – “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; behold the old has passed away, the new has come.”
- Favorite movie: It’s a Wonderful Life
- Favorite sports team: Pittsburgh Steelers
- Salad or Dessert: Salad
- Dream vacation spot: Costa Rica
- Early morning or late night person: Early morning
- Best car I’ve owned: Jeep Cherokee
You can reach Axel by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org