They say first impressions are important. Ashante Little seems to have that nailed down, judging by her first encounter with Dave Cusano, Wheaton’s head track and field coach, during his first season on campus in 2012.
“When I first met Ashante, she asked, ‘How are you going to make me a national champion?’” Cusano recalls. “I knew right from that moment that I was going to have an opportunity to coach someone very special.”
Their teamwork, indeed, has led Little to her greatest achievement on the track. Last spring she captured her first career national title with a personal best time of 54.79 seconds in the 400-meter dash at the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track & Field Championship in La Crosse, Wis.
“Before the final of the 400-meter, coach told me I could do it,” she says. “It had been a long weekend and we still had races to finish, but his trust and reassurance kept me out of my own head and helped me stay as focused and on target as I could be.”
As Cusano recalls, “Was I nervous about Ashante’s race? No, but I could see signs of fatigue from her racing eight times over a three-day span at the biggest meet of the season. But what she expected from herself was greatness and she achieved it.”
Once Little crossed the finish line, she not only celebrated her accomplishment with Cusano, but also inked her name in the Wheaton track and field program record book as the 19th student-athlete to earn a national title, something that hadn’t been accomplished since Amber James ’04 earned crowns in both the 200-meter dash and 400-meter dash nine years earlier in the same venue.
In addition to this crowning achievement, Little had enjoyed a very successful first season with the Lyons, earning two impressive honors—New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) Outdoor Track & Field Co-Rookie of the Year award and a spot on the All-Conference Second Team (outdoor 400-meter hurdles). But she wanted more.
“I realize now that I had never truly pushed myself before Coach Cusano’s arrival. He helped me to see that greatness didn’t come just from doing physical work, but that all aspects of my life needed to fall into suit with my goals,” says Little. “Coach has taught me that in order to be the best athlete I can be, I need to be my best ‘self’,’ which includes being emotionally and mentally strong.”
Since the two have been working together, Little’s performance on the track has improved. Over the past three seasons, she’s earned not only a national title, but also nine All-America honors. She also is the sole holder of three Wheaton records in the 100-meter hurdles (outdoor), 500 meters (indoor), and 600 meters (indoor).
A major in African, African American, Diaspora studies, Little’s drive to succeed in athletics matches her desire to excel in the classroom. She credits Professor Shawn Christian, her advisor, for helping her stay on track for academic success.
“Professor Christian has shaped my Wheaton career tremendously by going above and beyond. Year after year at Wheaton, he has been more than supportive in both my academic and athletic pursuits. He has worked with me to identify my goals, which is reassuring as a senior trying to figure out what comes after Wheaton.”
Outside of the classroom, she has been busy helping current students as well as helping Wheaton prepare for the future. She is one of two students selected to serve with faculty and staff on the Presidential Search Committee.
“To play such an integral role in the future of the institution is quite gratifying,” she says.
She also is a mentor for first-year student-athletes, a role she created with Dean Alex Vasquez and Associate Director of Athletics Lisa Yenush ’90.
As for postgraduation plans, Little says, she’s keeping her options open, including the possibility of applying to graduate schools.
One thing is for sure, says Cusano, given her track record, “She is the type of person who can accomplish whatever she seeks.”