Kappa Alpha Theta wins eighth women’s Little 500 title

There was already anxiety in the Kappa Alpha Theta pit as the final lap of the race commenced, nearly a dozen teams still in the hunt.

It didn’t help that the infield stage blocked the Thetas’ view of Rachel Brown’s sprint to the finish.

“OK, she’s in pretty good position,” senior Sydney Keaton recalled thinking, just as the defending champions, in their yellow jerseys, were swept up behind the stage with the rest of the pack. “Black-black-black!” Keaton said, pointing to the stage, unable to see past its dark drapings.

Before she relived the final scene of her story, Keaton took a deep, dramatic breath.

“There she is! That’s her! The yellow!”

In her 18th lap of the race, with everything she had to give and an entire swarm of competitors to lose, Brown burst past the field to give Kappa Alpha Theta its third championship in four years. All the anxiety in the Thetas’ pit released at once, erupting into wild celebration.

“I thought I was coming back out, I thought I was going to have some time to rest up,” Brown said, “but that wasn’t the case. I’m happy I had it when it mattered.” 

The race built to a fearful point, because Kappa Alpha Theta, unlike last year, couldn’t find their opportunity to break away. Brown watched as the laps counted up toward 100, just waiting and wondering when her time would arrive.

The senior, expecting to be the anchor leg, saw half the race slide away without an opportunity to take the bike. The laps just crawled along, into No. 60, 61, and 62, and so on, the yellow jersey remaining an obvious dot in the middle of sea of cyclists.

“There was a part of us that thought we were going to get away again, like we did last year, and I was thinking to myself, ‘I can’t really get away on my own,’ so I wasn’t really sure what the plan is,” Brown said. “Then it became apparent that I just had to go and win in a sprint.”

That obviously isn’t the position Theta coach Ryan Knapp wanted to be in late in the race. But he wasn’t going to have his riders pull out to the front too early and watch them burn all their energy before the stretch run. So the Thetas sat back, waiting for an opportunity to seize control 

When that opportunity never really came, there was fear. Sprint finishes are risky. But Knapp said he felt like he had no choice but to turn it over to Brown with 18 laps to go. She was the top rider during spring series events, and she proved her worth on Friday in the program’s eighth overall championship with a time of 1:14.40.

“If you had asked me before the race, ‘Do you want Rachel Brown out there for 18 laps at the end?’ I would have definitely said ‘No, no thank you,'” Knapp said. “But it was nice because it put us in the driver’s seat and she was able to just watch, do what she needed to do based on whatever the current climate was in the race.”

Alums were joking with Brown along the fence line as she waited to go in, and she quipped that it wouldn’t be bad to enter the field on Lap 90. Three-quarters of the way through the race, there wasn’t going to be time to exchange Brown in, out and back in again.

She would have to ride the rest of the race. Just 17 laps and then a final dead sprint to the finish.

“I knew (Knapp) wasn’t joking, because that wasn’t really the time to joke. Part of me thought he couldn’t really be serious,” Brown said.

“I didn’t think I was going to ride one set, I didn’t even do an exchange. That’s crazy.”

The result was beyond what Keaton, a teammate of Brown’s for four years, could have ever expected. Brown opened up a .8-second gap over the second-place finisher, Delta Gamma. Teter, Alpha Chi Omega and Melanzana rounded out the top 5.

“She is the strongest rider I think Theta has ever seen,” Keaton said. “She blew away the (Individual Time Trials) record, she did so much during Team Pursuit, won Miss N’ Out. She is just the epitome of just a strong, very skilled, very talented rider. She was prepared for this.”

Brown said there was very little on her mind as she crossed the finish line, victorious. She just thought back to last year’s team picture, when Theta wore its glasses and helmets onto the stage.

She was determined to change that.

That, and only that.

“We had our glasses and helmets on last year, and I realized we looked like nerds,” Brown said. “I was mostly concerned with getting my helmet and glasses off and, again, I realize just how dumb that sounds.”