By Trevor Wenners
Assistant Director of Sports Information
LaGrange College has played an important role in Sarah Bearden's life.
The 2018 graduate first set foot on campus as a 6-year-old girl, as family ties to the institution run deep in the Bearden family. Sarah's mother, Cindi Bearden, has been a professor of business at LaGrange for 19 years, while Sarah's older sister, Jessica Bearden Thompson, graduated from the nursing program in 2015.
|Sarah Bearden excelled in academics and athletics at LaGrange College.|
"My older sister and I always attended the family-oriented events on campus with our mother," recalled Bearden. "LaGrange College has more than just supported my family; it has played a large role in making us who we are."
Fast forward to 2015 and Bearden continued her relationship with the college, choosing to transfer in as a cross-country student-athlete from NCAA Division I Georgia State University.
The sophomore made her presence felt with a highlight-filled 2015 season. Bearden was named the USA South Runner of the Year, placing first overall at the conference championship. She set a personal record of 23:04.3 in the 6-kilometer event at the Berry College Invitational.
"I can say with utter confidence that transferring to LaGrange College was one of the best decisions I have ever made," said Bearden. "This school gave me the confidence and support I needed to excel in athletics, and the experience and guidance I needed to succeed in the workforce after college."
The well-rounded athlete also took home first-place honors at the LaGrange College Panther Invitational, while finishing in third place during the 5-kilometer event at the University of West Georgia Invitational.
Bearden's 2015 accomplishments were not over. She was 37th at the NCAA Division III South/Southeast Regional Championship.
"The lack of success I had at the Division I level is what motivated me my sophomore year," said Bearden. "I knew I was capable of so much more than my performance at Georgia State showed. While coming in first at the conference meet and winning Runner of the Year honors were extremely rewarding, I will never forget racing head to head against my previous team and beating the girls who had outperformed me the year before."
The hallmark of being a Division III student-athlete is the opportunity to have a complete college experience. Athletic success is still important, but people can dedicate an ample amount of time to academics as well. The driven and competitive Bearden translated her work ethic over to the classroom, as she earned 2015 U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) All-Academic Team honors. During her time as a Panther, Bearden was the recipient of the Zachary Taylor Jr. award for Outstanding Student in Business.
In 2018, Bearden graduated with Summa Cum Laude honors with an overall GPA of 3.96, earning a bachelor's degree in marketing and entrepreneurship alongside a minor in marketing design. The motivated young woman now holds two jobs, one of which is a full-time position as the vice president of digital media at Kelsey Advertising & Design in LaGrange. Bearden focuses on creating and executing strategic social-media marketing plans for numerous high-profile clients.
The lessons that Bearden inherited as a student-athlete such as time-management skills, working long hours, and teamwork and leadership expertise have paid dividends, as she has hit the ground running as a professional.
"My competitive drive spills over into every aspect of my life," explained Bearden. "For me, school was just another race. I wanted to be the best, so I managed my time well and studied as diligently as I needed to in order to get the grades I wanted. I believe that it is never too early to start gaining work experience. Even during the 2015 season, I worked 20 hours per week at a local boutique, J Perry Boutique, where I gained experience in marketing."
Even though her time as a student-athlete was over, Bearden had the itch to be involved with LaGrange College and is in her second year as an assistant coach for the Panther cross-country teams.
"There is something special about LaGrange College," said Bearden. "It is truly a community of people who love and support each other. It is where I met some of my best friends, my fiancé, Mark Wagner '16, and teachers who I will stay in touch with for years to come. When I step onto campus now that I have graduated, I am flooded with memories and feelings of nostalgia."
Bearden is adjusting to the life of a coach, as she paves the way for the next generation of Panthers. Working alongside head coach Jasen Jonus, sophomores Bryan Storie and Holly Moreland are developing into solid collegiate runners. Storie has compiled a first-place finish and a runner-up nod during the 2019 season, while Moreland has finished in the top-11 overall four times in her career.
"Coaching a team is different than being a student-athlete, but my philosophy is that unless you have done the training yourself, you should not be advising others on doing it," said Bearden. "When I was competing, and now, I prefer to lead by example. I never ask my runners to do a workout that I have not already done myself, and when I can, I do it with them. Trust is so important between a coach and an athlete."
It has been almost 20 years since Bearden first walked through LaGrange's campus, but the sense of community has stayed the same.
"While at LaGrange, there was no doubt that my coach Joseph Strickland and the teachers cared about me," said Bearden. "At the end of the day, all you need to succeed is a desire to be successful, a belief that you can be, and great teachers and coaches to lead you."
Trevor Wenners can be reached at email@example.com.