D. Elton Cochran-Fikes
“I first saw Denis run at Macomb’s Dam Park track when he ran for Rice High School,” said future two-time Olympian Matt Centrowitz. “He was the biggest, strongest … fastest guy out there that day. He had a long fluid stride that I’ll never forget. He dominated the New York running scene from the mile to cross country and it was extremely inspiring to see him run.”
Judging from the glowing memories of Denis Elton Cochran-Fikes — whose contemporaries have instant visual recall of the way he ran — it is clear that Cochran-Fikes possessed a truly unforgettable talent. The irony is that despite his clear natural gifts as a runner, he was an accidental athlete.
The self-described “nerd” in middle school contentedly awaited the start of his freshman year of high school at Rice Academy in Harlem, N.Y., in 1967. Until he discovered during his pre-freshman summer that his new school had a strict but simple policy regarding sports — every student had to participate in one. The year’s athletic events would kick off with a school wide Field Day, a mandatory event for every student.
Concerned about embarrassing himself on Field Day, Cochran-Fikes accepted an offer from his older brother Don to join him in his summer training for his high school track team. After six weeks of training, Cochran-Fikes was able to run one uninterrupted mile and felt satisfied that he could acquit himself reasonably well for Field Day. That he did, placing second in his half-mile race, and as far as he was concerned, he was pretty close to having achieved his lifetime sports goals.
But he did join Rice’s cross country and track teams to satisfy the sports participation requirement, though not because he had realized his preternatural talent for running. “I discovered that the new freshman track coach was an old boyfriend of my sister’s. As a result, I abandoned my plans to join the handball team figuring that with Eddie as coach I would not have to really work out, which I had no real desire to do.”
To his credit, Coach Ed Robinson had other — and as it turned out, life-changing — plans for Cochran-Fikes, though neither knew it at the time. “I quickly learned that Coach Robinson would not let me get away with just going through the motions. He expected and demanded that I work hard and give it my best. After a few weeks of not-much-fun practices we had our first race. I won and my life was changed forever.” The reluctant runner was about to become a star.
Cochran-Fikes went on to dominate high school distance running in the state of New York, setting state records in the one-, two- and three-mile distances. Inundated with scholarship offers, the college selection process was an emotionally trying experience for Cochran-Fikes. Instead of college, he was seriously considering attending seminary in preparation for the priesthood.
Conflicted by his choices, he sought counsel from a small group of people including University of Pennsylvania track coach Jim Tuppeny. “Mr. Tuppeny was very understanding. He realized that this was a very tough position that I had placed myself in and that what I didn’t need was pressure from college coaches. So began, Tupp’s non-recruitment of Denis Fikes,” he recalls.
As Cochran-Fikes sought to proceed with both college and his running career, he heeded the advice of his high school principal to attend the best college he could. His decision to attend Penn was made because it provided the best combination of athletics and academics. Now, after spending most of the previous 35 years as an athlete or athletic administrator at Ivy League institutions, Cochran-Fikes feels as strongly as ever that his gut instinct about Penn was correct.
“Ivy athletics is guided by the principle of academics before athletics. The Ivy League is the best place to be for any college student who is looking for the embodiment of college athletics. As an Ivy athlete you train and compete with students who are students first and athletes second. Yet, the individual commitment to athletic growth and success is extremely strong. Ivy student-athletes succeed in all aspects of the collegiate experience.”
Cochran-Fikes became part of a stellar freshman class of distance runners for Penn who would culminate their initial 1971 season with an impressive third-place finish at the Cross Country NCAA Championships. The team was so dominant in the League that in winning the Heps title it astonishingly placed all seven of its runners in the top nine.
Other collegiate highlights include recording a 3:55.0 mile, which ranked second in the U.S. annual ranking and 15th on the all-time world list. It was also the fastest mile ever run by an African-American. Additionally, he achieved an eastern mile title, six conference titles, two All-American honors, six-time All-Eastern and numerous times All-Ivy.
After serving as an officer in, and coaching track for, the U.S. Marine Corps Cochran-Fikes returned to Penn’s Wharton Business School to earn an MBA with the goal of pursuing a career in athletic administration. Three decades later he is doing just that, as the Compliance Coordinator at his alma mater, after holding other athletic administration and coaching posts at both Harvard and Penn, and serving on numerous committees for USA Track & Field and the NCAA.
As a participant in one way or another with Ivy League athletics for more than half of his life, Cochran-Fikes has a well-informed perspective about Ivy athletics. “I am old school. I bought into the Ivy ideals and Ivy philosophy as represented in the original Ivy Agreement. However, I do not believe athletic scholarships are inherently bad, nor do I believe that strong academics and national level athletics cannot coexist.”
Cochran-Fikes’ own collegiate career is ample proof of the latter statement and served as inspiration to other Ivy League athletes. Craig Masback, the current CEO of USA Track & Field, was a Princeton freshman when Cochran-Fikes was a senior.
“His maturity and flamboyance off the track, combined with his majestic and dominating presence on the track, made me realize that anything was possible — even for an Ivy League athlete. I was in the paddock at the Penn Relays when he ran his 3:55 mile — at that moment, I knew that I, too, wanted to break four minutes … and, based on his trail-blazing example, that it might be possible.”
Masback did, in fact, break four minutes (his 3:52.02 in 1979 made him history’s sixth fastest miler ever) as he went on to become a world-class miler.
Those who watched Denis Elton Cochran-Fikes do not focus solely on his example of excellence, but also on the inspiring impression he left on people with his running and his presence.
Centrowitz, now the head coach at American University in Washington, D.C., said, “Watching Denis run, how he ran and how he dominated other runners made me want to run. Through the years I got to know him personally. He is a finer person now then he was a runner.”
This story was written by Meredith Rainey Valmon in 2006 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.