As a bookish, unathletic high school freshman, Elton Cochran-Fikes shuddered at the idea of anything having to do with sports.
Little did he know that, less than a decade later, he would become the first Ivy League athlete to run a mile in less than four minutes.
Now Penn’s athletic compliance officer, Cochran-Fikes set twenty-five school records, won seven Heptagonal medals and twice was named an All-American as a middle distance runner for the Quakers’ track and field team in the early 1970s. Stints in institutions as diverse as the Marines and seminary took him from Virginia to Harlem to Harvard and everywhere in between.
Yet, despite the places he went in life, Cochran-Fikes could always return to the place where he felt most at home: Penn.
Born in a small North Carolina town, Denis E. Fikes — as he was known back then — was raised as the youngest of five children in a single-parent household. Although his older brother and sister were both actively involved with sports, Elton shied away from physical activity as a result of a sprinting race against his sister that ended poorly for him.
“I just got destroyed,” Cochran-Fikes laughed. “Absolutely destroyed.”
Embarrassed, Cochran-Fikes sought comfort in his schoolwork and did not even think about participating in athletics until his freshman year of high school. Before that year, he learned that his school would require every student to be part of a sports team.
That notion terrified Cochran-Fikes to no end — until he learned that the coach of the freshman track team was none other than his sister’s old boyfriend, Eddie.
“I was thinking, well this is great!” Cochran-Fikes said. “I can just sign up for the track team. I don’t have to do anything, I’ll just hang out with Eddie.
“That was my plan.”
Things did not go according to plan, however, as Cochran-Fikes finished second in his first half-mile race of freshman year.
After refining his running technique with the help of Eddie and his other coaches, Cochran-Fikes went on to win all but three of his races as a sophomore and lost only once as a junior in New York City’s highly competitive track and field scene. As a senior, Cochran-Fikes won every race.
“I think it’s probably fair to say that in comparing my high school career, my college career and my open career, in terms of success within those categories, regrettably, I’ve never been able to top my high school career,” Cochran-Fikes said.
“But college was no drag either.”
Under coach Jim Tuppeny, Penn’s track and field and cross-country teams had an almost unprecedented reign of success in the early 1970s. The Red and Blue won the outdoor Heptagonal championships seven years in a row, including all four of Cochran-Fikes’ years at Penn.
It was an age in which the runners flew and the records fell.
“The freshman race usually preceded the varsity race,” Cochran-Fikes recalled. “So in the freshman race I would set the school record, and then later that meet in the varsity race my friend Karl Thornton would set the school record.
“That would go on every time. I can’t tell you how many times we set and reset records.”
When Cochran-Fikes ran the mile in 3:55.0 in the spring of 1974, it was the 15th-fastest mile that had been run up to that point that year. Additionally, it was the fastest mile of any African-American runner that year.
Cochran-Fikes was acutely aware of his status as a prominent African-American athlete. Although black runners would come to dominate the distance running scene in later years, they were mostly confined to sprinting, shot putting and discus throwing during this era.
“I would go to a cross country race in high school with 200 to 300 guys showing up at the starting line,” Cochran-Fikes said. “And I’d be the only black runner.”
Given the fact that he was winning most of those races, he could not pretend that people did not notice his skin color.
“I can’t say that it didn’t carry a heavy weight, because it did,” Cochran-Fikes said. “It was there. You knew it was there. And there was no way you could get away from it. But I don’t think I allowed it to negatively impact my running, my schooling or anything else.”
Rather, he hoped it could make a positive impact on others.
“I did hope that I could be a role model of sorts,” he said. “To change stereotypes. To let people know that there were black distance runners.”
After graduating from Penn with majors in political science and religious studies, Cochran-Fikes was still unsure of his intended career path. Although he leaned towards athletic administration, he had already changed his mind once before, briefly studying at seminary before college before deciding that the priesthood was not for him.
Because he felt he still needed to grow and learn more before choosing his ultimate vocation, Cochran-Fikes followed some of his college friends into the Marine Corps.
“The education that you get just from the people that you interact with [in the military], the diversity that you’re presented with, is unbelievable,” Cochran-Fikes said.
In addition, the Marines gave Cochran-Fikes his first taste of athletic administration. He was responsible for scheduling activities and directing the operations of the Marines’ wrestling, fencing, baseball and track teams.
It was these experiences that helped convince him to pursue career in athletic administration.
“I think I’ve always been a rules kind of person,” Cochran-Fikes said. “I’ve always wanted to know the rules, follow the rules, things of that nature. So I was not interested in doing anything that was impermissible.”
Beyond that, however, Cochran-Fikes has always held an interest making rules more accessible.
One of his first assignments after completing his Marine training was to help revamp the training process for the Marines’ Officer Candidate School. He made an effort to eliminate some of the crueler practices in the training that caused unnecessary injuries.
As Penn Athletics’ compliance officer, he has tried to simplify the rules in a similar way, working with the NCAA to remove some of its more stringent regulations on what athletes can and cannot do.
After being honorably discharged from the Marines as a First Lieutenant in 1977, Cochran-Fikes returned to Penn while he simultaneously worked for the University and received his MBA from Wharton in management policy and planning.
In 1982, Cochran-Fikes accepted a job at Harvard to become assistant athletic director and a coach for the women’s cross country and men’s and women’s track and field squads. He enjoyed remarkable success coaching both sports and was named the New England NCAA Division I Coach of the Year in 1983.
In 1986, however, Cochran-Fikes received an offer from his alma mater to return as associate director of athletics. It was one he simply could not refuse.
“What made me want to come back here was the fact that it was Penn,” Cochran-Fikes said. “It was home.”
While Cochran-Fikes misses coaching immensely, he does not ache to run competitively again himself.
“It’s a lot of work, to involve oneself in athletics,” Cochran-Fikes said. “So do I miss it? No. It was a lot of work. I don’t want to work that hard anymore.”
However, he does find himself envisioning the final race of his competitive running career from time to time.
After the United States announced that it would boycott the 1980 Olympics, Cochran-Fikes, who had hoped to compete for the US national team, stopped training. However, a friend convinced him to run one last mile at that year’s Penn Relays.
While Cochran-Fikes finished with a lackluster time, he received a standing ovation from the crowd when it was announced that he had run his final race.
“That was the perfect ending,” Cochran-Fikes said.
But perhaps Cochran-Fikes’s greatest achievement at Penn came when he met his wife, Doris, at the end of his senior year. After meeting Elton for the first time at the induction ceremony of the Friars Senior Society, Doris later extended an open invitation to Elton to have dinner at her house.
“It was nothing specific,” Cochran-Fikes said of the invitation. “But, like a typical hungry male, a couple of nights later, I thought, ‘It’s dinnertime. Let’s see if I can find Doris’s house.’
“So, she invited me over, we talked, and we’ve been talking ever since.”
Upon their marriage, Elton incorporated Doris’s last name, Cochran, into his own name, and she did the same with his. She has also worked at Penn for a number of years and currently serves in the admissions office.
“She’s been my best friend for over forty years now,” Cochran-Fikes said. “I couldn’t imagine being without her.”
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