FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Friday morning marked the end of an era at Northern Arizona University. David McNeill, the decorated student-athlete from Melbourne, Australia, received his bachelor's degree in exercise science, capping off an amazing three-and-a-half year run in Flagstaff.
In his time at NAU, McNeill accomplished greatness in both the classroom and on the playing field. From winning two 5,000-meter national championships last year, nine All-American awards and being named the ESPN Academic All-American of the Year in the sport of track and field, McNeill has nothing but appreciation for all those who have helped him reach new heights.
"The main thing I am feeling now is gratitude," McNeill said. "I'm just incredibly grateful for the experience that I have had, the faith the school put in me by recruiting me and the lasting memories of being a Lumberjack, which I will always be."
Arriving on campus in the fall of 2007, both McNeill and Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Eric Heins began their first years at NAU. With McNeill being Heins' first athlete that he has seen through the program from start to finish, he noted how McNeill has grown over the years.
"I saw him come in as a very timid and shy person whom over the course of his time here became a true ambassador for the team," Heins said. "He became a more confident person. He adapted into becoming a team player because where he came from he never really was a part of a team."
Although both of McNeill's national titles came on the track, his front-running ability led the men's team to two fourth-place finishes (2007, 2009) and four-consecutive top-10 finishes. He closed out his career with seven individual cross country titles, and Heins attributes a large part of McNeill's success to the greater media attention that the track and field program has recently received.
"The best part about David's success is that over the years, track has gotten better coverage due to the Internet and other types of media," Heins said. "The fact that David was able to be so successful on the national level this day and age made it more impressive for the school in getting its name out there."
Throughout his time at NAU, McNeill has always had the support from Heins, but knows without his parents, his time in Flagstaff would not have been possible.
"I grew up a lot while I was here," McNeill said. "I've lived by myself for three-and-a-half years now. At the same time, it wouldn't have been possible in any way shape or form without my parents. I love and am incredibly grateful for my parents more so now after my time here."
Last June in Eugene, Ore., McNeill's mother and father traveled halfway across the world to see their son claim his second national championship of the 2010 season, a trip that McNeill's recalls as his greatest memory during his tenure at NAU.
"One of the best memories I have at NAU was winning the 5K in Eugene because my parents were there," McNeill said. "It would of been just as memorable if I came in second. It goes to show what kind of parents I have that they would travel halfway across the globe just to see me race. There love is unbounded."
The future for McNeill is very bright, as the 2012 Olympic hopeful will continue training in Flagstaff. McNeill will also continue to be coached by Heins, whom he says always has the right things to say to McNeill to help him through any situation.
"On the one hand, I've learned a lot from coach Heins in terms of training as an athlete," McNeill said. "My training has come a long way and a lot of my success can be contributed to hard work, but more importantly are coach Heins' influences as a person. Whenever you meet with him, he is always prepared. He always has a way of saying the right words to say. I've learned a lot from him in that way."
Heins believes the elevation of Flagstaff will continue to help McNeill in his training and with a little bit of luck on his side, Heins feels that McNeill will be able to make quite a name for himself on the professional circuit.
"I think it makes sense for him to base himself out of Flagstaff for the 2012 Games when he is trying to make the Australian National Team," Heins said. "I plan on doing whatever I can to help him. He has a world of potential, now it is just a matter of having a little bit of luck and consistent training and getting into the right races in Europe and doing well in the Australian National races."
With his degree in hand, McNeill intends to continue his education in the future. With the support of NAU and the Flagstaff community, it appears that McNeill could stay in his home away from home for years to come.
"Graduation is nice, but I intend to keep studying and hopefully be around in Flagstaff for a couple of years and perhaps study more here," McNeill said. "I don't think I am ready to said goodbye to it all yet."