Continuing the popular series that began in 2016-17, each Wednesday MGoBlue.com will highlight a Michigan student-athlete and their academic pursuits. These are our Scholar-Athlete Stories, presented by Prairie Farms.
For some high school students, playing sports in college is the goal; the end-all, be-all of their athletic career. For University of Michigan heptathlete Aaron Howell, though, participating in track and field began more as a social event than a sport.
"I went to track because most of my friends were on the team and it was more just for fun and games," said Howell. "It wasn't until the USATF Junior Nationals in Greensboro, North Carolina, my junior year when I actually started taking it seriously. Then I started getting recruited."
A native of nearby Farmington Hills, Howell always had an idea that she would attend the University of Michigan, but as a student, not an athlete. It was not until she competed in and won the heptathlon at Nationals her junior year that competing collegiately seemed possible.
"It kind of started off with my high school coach. He was the one that coached Bettie Wade, our school record-holder in the multis, and he could just see that we had similar body structures and other similarities," Howell said. "He started throwing me in random events. I didn't mind it at the time. I just liked competing."
One year after an ACL tear that ended her sophomore season prematurely, Howell was back on the track and was stronger than before. At the 2016 Big Ten Outdoor Championships, she took third in the heptathlon and set a new personal record (5,538 points). Howell one-upped that performance last year, as she won the heptathlon with career bests in the 100-yard hurdles (14.03 seconds) and shot put (12.90 meters).
Coincidentally, Howell became the first Michigan woman to win the Big Ten heptathlon title since Wade, who won in 2007.
"That win was a surprise to me and everybody, I feel like. I hadn't been able to finish a full heptathlon that year and I was having difficulties during my indoor season," she said. "Just being able to finish was an accomplishment itself, but winning was a big deal to me. I was really happy."
Howell credits much of her success to her off-field training and rehabbing after suffering the knee injury and battling chronic hamstring issues.
"I spent three hours a day, five-to-six days a week just trying to get back to it," said Howell. "But that motivated me because I saw my closest friends, my teammates, travelling and doing really well. When you see other people do really well, you want to do the same."
While Howell continues to excel on the track and in the field, she is hoping to dive deeper into another one of her passions: social justice.
One of her main goals before walking across the stage at graduation is to address the social issues on campus. As a double-major in both international studies and sociology, Howell is planning to pursue law school once she graduates in April.
Although attending Michigan was an easy decision for Howell, choosing a major took longer than she expected. After taking many core classes, Howell was able to settle on one.
"My junior year I decided to go with international studies because I came in wanting to work with the FBI/CIA-type and so I thought it would be a decent fit," she said. "There was always a part of me that wanted to go to law school, because I was always interested in the crime and justice field, but I didn't necessarily want to be a police officer or anything like that. I always thought there were issues with the criminal justice system and with other institutions, so I figured this would be the best route to take."
Since stepping on campus, Howell continues to use her opportunities as a student-athlete to answer a higher calling of social activism.