BANNER ELK – In a continuation of its alumni series, providing in-depth interviews with some of esteemed alumni to discuss their favorite memories at Lees-McRae and any advice that they would give to current student-athletes, Director of Sports Information Patrick Smith sat down with men’s track and field alum Brian Knapp.
Knapp, who currently resides in Hilton Head, S.C., was a four-year cross-country runner who helped lead the Bobcats to the National Championships in 2001 and winning three Conference Carolinas titles. As a member of the first class of track athletes in Banner Elk, Knapp helped put the program on the national stage by becoming an All-American in the 800-meter run and still holds the program record of 1:49 in that event.
Question: What are a few of your favorite memories that you have from your time at Lees-McRae and wearing the green, gold and white?
Knapp: “So I started in 2001 and was there until 2005. It’s kind of an interesting story. I was a late bloomer and didn’t start running until my junior in high school. My senior year, I was just good enough to get a little bit of attention from colleges. I had actually committed to another school and found out that the coach was going to leave and they were going to have a replacement. I was unsure what that would mean for my development. Out of the blue, Coach Craig McPhail called me and sold me on the dream of coming up to Lees-McRae. The track team at the time didn’t exist, so I was going to be starting the foundation of a new team. It was very exciting. One of the best memories I have was from that first year. We had an underdog team of six freshman and one senior. Coach McPhail guided us to the National Championships in our first year. That was such a cool experience of Coach guiding us toward this monumental goal…and achieving it.”
Question: Take me through that ride of going and competing at the National Championship meet?
Knapp: “One of the significant advantages that Lees-McRae has is the location. The elevation creates a biological advantage to running at this elevation by adjusting your body to use the lower levels of oxygen more efficiently. It’s an opportunity you can’t really duplicate anywhere else in the Eastern United States. It’s the same reason why Banner Elk is a cycling mecca. The other unique thing about running, is that you cannot fake it. You have to put the work in to achieve. Coach McPhail did a great job of getting us physical and mentally prepared, which is the other aspect. He is a great competitor and what he was doing to set us up to succeed. When you stood on the starting line, looking back on how you prepared to this day gave you confidence and that was what really helped us succeed.”
Question: Tell me what it was like to be one of the first members of the Lees-McRae track program?
Knapp: “That was a huge selling point for me. In High School I had showed a lot of potential in track as a middle-distance runner. I placed fourth in the state in track at the 800-meter event. Going into to college, I wanted to see how far I could go with the sport. It was such a learning experience to be a part of the team in its infancy. Coach McPhail would pick us up in the van and drive us down to a meet we could participate in. I was there when the track was first being laid down and it was incredible to be a part of a foundation of a very exciting time at Lees-McRae. We started the track program in 2002, but for me my junior year in 2004 was when I became a serious competitor. I started training with focus over the summer and became serious about what I could accomplish. I went from a 1:55 half-mile to a 1:51 that put me at sixth in the nation overnight. Once you get to that point, a threshold where you feel like you are on your elite level, Coach and I would go into races and training sequences that were foreign to both of us. He had never coached someone in middle distance at this level and we had to figure out what worked as well as what didn’t. We would get to the point in training where I couldn’t feel my legs anymore – completely reaching my physical threshold. That was something that I have been able to take with me for the rest of my life. That core value of hard work and dedication can take you to things you never thought possible which I found at Lees-McRae.
Question: Was there a class and/or professor that you remember from your time at Lees-McRae that has had a lasting effect on you?
Knapp: “Yeah, I would just say as a whole I really appreciate the fact that Lees-McRae is a liberal arts school. It was helpful for me, as someone who was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, enable me to figure out what I wanted to do. I talk to students these days and they are so pressured to fit into a direct line towards a specific career, without having the opportunity to explore new things. I ended up as a business major. Hub Powell was a teacher that was really important to my growth. He was in the private business sector before teaching at Lees-McRae and was able bring real-life experience that he applied to his teaching method. That was a crucial thing for me to connect the knowledge to the real world. There are so many ways you can take that major. He was someone who took everyone under his wing and made sure that we would be set up for the future. It is amazing how you may have one person who can make all of the difference. That is really inspiring to me as an alumni.”
Question: Could you talk a little more about what it was like to be a student-athlete here at Lees-McRae?
Knapp: “Well, here’s an example. During my senior year, everything seemed to culminate. I was a multi-time All-American academically and athletically and I ended up placing third in the nation at the NCAA Championships in the 800-meter run. Here is the difference with track & field... You have an awesome opportunity to perform and run at the most prestigious track & field events in the nations as long as you could run the times needed to qualify. It wasn’t a situation where you only played someone in the conference, I got the chance to compete against the best college and professional track athletes in the nation at these meets. It was an honor to have that exposure and to bring that exposure to Lees-McRae. It is interesting to be at that national level. It made me emotional to think about it as possibly being my last race of my career. It was the process that brought me here and what was really important was how much work I put into this event. I had a final year of eligibility due to track and I used that last year at Clemson University to pursue my MBA. I was able to run at Clemson and it was interesting that I performed at a higher level at Lees-McRae. Clemson has nutritionists, sports psychologists and all of these things that at the end of the day wasn’t the key to me performing. For me it was surrounding myself with the right people.
Question: What has your post-graduation life looked like after Lees-McRae?
Knapp: “Well after Lees-McRae, I went on to Clemson University and got an MBA in Finance & Economics. Long story short, I am now an owner of an Insurance, Brokerage and Advisory Firm which I started in 2018. Prior to that I had experience with the sixth-largest broker in the country and then decided to go off on my own. I am an independent business owner and I live here in Hilton Head, South Carolina with my wife and two daughters.
Question: Now would you say that your experience at Lees-McRae, with helping to start a new athletics’ program, helped you become a small business owner?
Knapp: “Yes I mean I think that that entire experience, with being involved with something new and some real special teams with postseason success, I think it has definitely helped me foster my entrepreneurial spirit. The education I received at Lees-McRae led me to become a 4.0 MBA student at Clemson. When you talk about the preparation that Lees-McRae gives for your future, you can take that at face value. I think a lot of the core values that I’ve developed as the person I have become, is directly related to what I experienced at Lees-McRae.
Question: What is a piece of advice would you give to a current student-athlete at Lees-McRae?
Knapp: “So definitely, from an academic side, there is a lot of pressure to figure out what you want to do and who you are going to be. I would say for people to keep an open mind and have some varying experience to take it all in at college. Enjoy the moment. It seems like people always say, ‘It goes by so fast and to make the most of this moment’ and it is so true. While you are in the moment, you do not realize how fast it goes. Take advantage of your time at Lees-McRae. A story like mine…you have a guy like me on paper there was no indication that I could achieve what I was able to. If I went down another path at another school, I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to compete on the biggest stage and pursue my MBA. I met my wife at a running race after I graduated. Five of the six groomsmen at my wedding were met as result of this sport. My best man was one of my teammates freshman year. This all happened because of Lees-McRae and the program here. I would also suggest sticking with it. There are always ups and downs, but it was all worth it in the end.”