Lara Carlson’s Journey to the Speedway

It’s probably not very common for someone who “hated school” to wind up as a physiologist and college professor. But then, Lara Carlson, in many respects, isn’t exactly typical. Although she is all too aware of her strong perfectionist drive, she is not one to rest on her laurels and stay safely within the bounds of what she knows most. Her unquenchable thirst for life experiences keeps sending her on new, sometimes dangerous, trails. Hers is a wild ride.

After excelling for three years in high school basketball, Carlson suffered a torn knee ligament on the court the summer before her senior year. Unable to high-jump on the track and field team in the spring, she tried throwing the javelin and ended up winning her division for the State of Connecticut.

Despite being recruited, Carlson did not seriously consider attending college. She “never liked being a student in a classroom and just wasn’t into school.” But after spending six months working a nine-to-five job in a video store for minimum wage, she felt the tug of higher aspirations.

She enrolled as an athletic training major at Southern Connecticut State University and threw javelin on the track and field team. “I was awful at it,” remembered Carlson. “At the high school level I was great, but in college it was a different story.”

Frustrated and disheartened, she met Coach Bill Sutherland, a 1984 Olympic Trials competitor in the hammer throw. “He essentially said that if he was going to train me, then if he told me to eat dirt off of the ground, I would eat dirt. I was so sick of losing at that point, and I knew that I could be better.” And she did get better. In fact, the summer before her junior year, she picked up the discus and hammer throw. Nine months later, she had made it to her first of four U.S.A. Track and Field National Championships in the hammer, eventually ranking 7th in the nation.

After graduation, she enrolled as a master’s student at the University of South Dakota, where she taught health and wellness courses to undergraduates. A job of coaching the men and women throwers paid her way through college.

To Carlson’s surprise, she, who had always disliked the classroom setting, fell in love with teaching. Eventually, she applied for a teaching position back East but was told she didn’t get it for lack of a doctorate.

“Something that I took away from my training experience with Bill was that you should never shoot low. He was always talking about this or that Olympian and made me feel like that level of competition was attainable. He taught me to never put a limit on anything, especially myself.”

And so, Carlson, the first person in her family to ever go to college, embarked on the path to her doctorate. She gave up her solid paycheck, benefits, and tenure to attend the doctoral program in exercise physiology at Springfield College. After graduating, she became an associate professor at Castleton State College in Vermont.

But after several years, there was a still a desire in Carlson that was unmet; so, again, she gave up her tenured position to come to UNE’s Applied Exercise Science Program, which offered her the opportunity to do research. “I decided to just go for it,” she recalled. Quoting Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr., she said, “ ‘You win some. You lose some. You wreck some,’ but at least if you go for it, you gave it an honest effort.”

In Carlson’s case, coming to UNE was a winning decision. With the help of great colleagues, Carlson’s research has “taken off,” quite literally. She has combined her love of research in exercise physiology with another love in her life that she stumbled into—Nascar racing. Soon she was pioneering new research on the physiological forces confronting drivers in this race, a fact that didn't escape the attention of the New York Times.

Today, after a dozen operations on her knee, which was reinjured in a car accident, Carlson’s osteoarthritis prevents her from participating in sports like she once did. She went through a period of mourning for the part of her life that was gone, but her adventurous spirit, coupled with her drive for perfection, takes her in new directions, all the time, it seems. Her latest pursuit is learning the drums. She shared: “I don’t care if your job is to teach, play the drums, train for the Olympics, or drive a race car. Do your best. Never do anything half-heartedly and always try to be stronger than your excuses.”

Little did Lara know that when she made the leap into UNE she would find the best partner in her bruising adventure for glory.