Big Ten champ DeCecco makes great strides on the track and in the classroom

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — There is no feeling quite like the excitement of a big win in sports. Whether the competition comes down to the last second or if it is an easy win, the thrill of victory is completely unparalleled. For Penn State student Rachael DeCecco, chasing this feeling has been one of the central pursuits of her life.

Currently a junior in the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (IME), DeCecco divides her time between the classrooms of Leonhard Building and the track, balancing life as a full-time student with her participation in Penn State’s Division I women’s Track & Field team.

DeCecco has been running track her entire life, devoting much of her time in high school and college to the sport. At Penn State, the women’s Track & Field team has two seasons, an indoor season and an outdoor season. This past February the team had one of their best indoor seasons in years, bringing home the gold in the Big Ten Championship for the first time since 2014.

“That was probably the best track meet that I’ve ever been to, just because the atmosphere and the energy that our team had was amazing,” DeCecco said about the Big Ten Championship meet.

DeCecco explained that in order for a team to win the championship in track and field, they have to accrue enough points by placing in the top eight for the various events. Penn State’s women’s Track & Field team had not secured their spot as the champions until the final event of the meet.

“It actually came down to the last event: the 4x400 meter relay, which is just so much fun in and of itself. It came down to Penn State and Purdue, and we had to finish in at least seventh place in the relay to win the title,” DeCecco explained. “Our teams were standing side-by-side on the outside of the track cheering everyone on … our girls ended up getting fifth place. As soon as we saw that they crossed the line, we just ran out onto the track screaming and celebrating.”

DeCecco and her teammates celebrate after winning the Big Ten Championship for indoor track and field in February.

DeCecco and her teammates celebrate after winning the Big Ten Championship for indoor track and field in February.

Image: Penn State

Even champions have to go to class, and for DeCecco that was no exception. Even after a win like the Big Ten Championship, her top priority will always be school. Balancing a demanding industrial engineering curriculum with her dedication to the team, DeCecco has to work even harder than most students to stay on top of her goals.

“I’ve definitely found myself getting more organized, and the experience of being a student-athlete has improved my time management skills,” DeCecco said.

She says that by staying organized and on top of her priorities, she is able to manage her busy schedule and find all of the appropriate times to accomplish each of her obligations. 

“Especially during the week, when I know that I have class at a certain time or I have to go to practice, it then forces me to use the remaining time in my day to study and do homework,” she explained.

That makes for a busy week, and the addition of travel for away meets can make it difficult for her to have any free time. However, having been a student-athlete since high school, handling a busy schedule is nothing new for her.

In addition to her dedication to balancing track and her studies, DeCecco also realizes the importance of gaining valuable work experience. This summer she is interning for Connors Group, a management consulting company based out of Pittsburgh.

As an intern she will spend her summer traveling to various companies all over the country as a consultant.  

“I’ll be working with clients to improve their operations and to optimize whatever type of work that they do,” she said. “I’m so excited. This is the first industrial engineering internship I’ve had so I’m really looking forward to it.”

While this is her first internship in industrial engineering, this is not DeCecco’s first work experience. She actually spent much of her sophomore year as well as last summer as a research assistant in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering (MNE) at Penn State.

“We studied the walking gait of children with cerebral palsy, and then used MATLAB to build a computerized model of their walk,” DeCecco said. “I learned about the different kinds of biomechanics that go into a normal walking gait and an impaired walking gait.”

Working under Anne Martin, a professor in the MNE department, DeCecco said she was able to learn all about biomechanical research while participating in the project.

A native of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, DeCecco was always interested in math and science during high school. When her adviser suggested that she explore engineering, she knew it was right for her.

“I like industrial engineering because it kind of brings in a business aspect,” she said. “I’m definitely better suited for a corporate setting, rather than working in a factory.”

When Penn State began recruiting DeCecco to be on the track and field team she was thrilled, but it wasn’t until she had done her official visit with the team that she was set on the school.

“When I came and took a visit of the campus, I stayed with one of the girls on the team and I saw how beautiful it is here. I immediately knew why people want to come here. After that I got to meet the team and that sold me,” she explained.

DeCecco was looking for more than just a beautiful campus, though. She knew that academics mattered, and Penn State had exactly what she was looking for.

“With the high academic standards at Penn State, and the fact that it houses the first industrial engineering program ever … I knew that if I’d been accepted into the engineering program, it’s a pretty big deal and I should take advantage of it,” she said.

And take advantage is exactly what she did. Since arriving at Penn State, DeCecco has done more than just run track. Also a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Board, she has dedicated what time she can to helping the organization to raise money for THON, Penn State’s 46-hour dance marathon that raises money for families of children with pediatric cancer.

DeCecco is also a distinguished scholar among student-athletes, and was honored as a Big Ten All-Academic Scholar. In addition, she is a recipient of the Harold and Inge Marcus Scholarship, which is awarded to outstanding undergraduate students in the IME department.

When asked about the future, DeCecco said that she doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do, but she is looking forward to finding out.

“I definitely want to travel. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited for my internship this summer. It’s going to be a great experience,” she said.

A distinguished scholar and a Big Ten champion, DeCecco perfectly embodies what it means to be a student-athlete at Penn State. She can often be found running the 400-meter hurdles at track practice, or in the labs of Leonhard Building working on projects for her industrial engineering classes. Or more likely, she might be found running between the two, determined to give her best to the two passions that divide her life. 

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Last Updated June 29, 2017