In 2005 Caroline Bierbaum became the second Columbia athlete to win the Honda Award as the outstanding college athlete of the year in her sport, following swimmer Christina Teuscher, who won in 2000. Bierbaum was surprised when she won, telling a Columbia Athletics reporter, “I wasn’t expecting it. I know they always nominate the top four finishers in the NCAA championships and it usually goes to the winner (Bierbaum finished second). I guess this is a testament to my consistency during the past year.”
There was a downside, though. When she told friends and family about the award she discovered, “Not that many people know what it is. They all thought I won a car.”
“She is the only one of the four Honda finalists to appear on the ballot twice,” Columbia coach Willy Wood told Columbia Athletics. “Caroline finished her collegiate career with two top-three national finishes. The award is the fitting culmination to an outstanding collegiate cross country career. It is the equivalent of winning the Heisman trophy.”
Consistent is a good way to describe Bierbaum’s junior and senior years at Columbia. A 2005 cross country All-American, she was also an All-American in three sports her junior year — cross-country, and indoor and outdoor track — even though she had never competed on a track before. Groton (where Bierbaum went to high school) has no track, and she competed in only cross country for Duke, before transferring to Columbia.
Her senior year continued in spectacular fashion. She placed second in both the NCAA indoor 5,000m and outdoor 10,000m championships. She also set the Ivy League 10,000 meter record of 32:44.51 at Outdoor Heps (the Ivy League championships). It is one of her two favorite races, because she broke her personal record by 45 seconds and she did it on Columbia’s home track.
The other favorite is her breakthrough 2004 NCAA Championships for cross country third-place finish. It was only her fourth start of the season, and she hoped to finish in the top twenty. As the finish line approached there were two runners out in front, then a small pack of runners including Bierbaum in her light blue uniform. Racing to the finish she outkicked the pack, only to discover that spectators thought she was Carol Henry of the University of North Carolina — a top runner who wore a similar shade of blue. In that race she realized, “I really was a good runner.”
A freshman cross country All-American at Duke, she did not compete that winter or spring. In her first year at Columbia her confidence took a beating. Running became more difficult for her. By summer she was having trouble running a few miles at a nine-minute pace — a speed reached by casual joggers, not elite runners. Her problems were thought to be caused by stress and exhaustion, but in August 2004 she was diagnosed with anemia, and a week of iron supplements had her feeling back to form.
Bierbaum grew up in Manhattan and spent five years at the Groton School in Massachusetts. A cross country standout, she was drawn to Duke because of its strong athletics and academics. She was also tired of the dreary New England winters and just wanted to try something different.
Despite of her athletic success at Duke, Bierbaum found the school was not a good fit,. Homesick and feeling out of place Bierbaum looked to move back to her hometown, applying to Columbia, Barnard and NYU. NYU wasn’t a serious contender, says Bierbaum, because “I would have missed the Division I experience.”
She‘s glad she opted for Columbia. “I had an incredible time. I’m so glad I transferred. My best friends are still my teammates.” Describing Columbia as “a collegiate environment in an urban setting,” she has a favorable opinion of Columbia athletics as well. “Sports at Duke were more high profile, with the best facilities and uniforms and more money. But in terms of coaching and quality of teams and teammates Columbia was a match, and it was better for me.”
An Academic All-American history major, Bierbaum feels she missed out on little of the college experience. Initially interested in journalism, she wrote a few articles for the Spectator (Columbia’s student newspaper) but found that training precluded her being in the office evenings, so she gave it up. But she was able to take all of the classes she wanted, and has no regrets.
As for the rigorous academic standards and lack of athletic scholarships at Ivy schools, Bierbaum says “That’s what makes the Ivy League the Ivy League. It would divide the student body if there were different standards,” she thinks, adding “I think more than half my teammates were on the Dean’s list.”
Presently a first-year student at Yeshiva University‘s Cardozo Law School, Bierbaum continues running competitively and has a contract with Nike. She hopes to make the Olympics in the 10,000-meter run or the marathon.
Teuscher, Columbia’s first Honda winner, set the bar high, swimming to Olympic Gold in Atlanta in 1996. Bierbaum will be looking to follow that same route yet again.
This story was written by Suzanne Eschenbach in 2007 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.