COLUMBIA - "Just finish the race and do it fast! The faster you move your feet, the faster it's over with!"
Stephens College freshman Gracie Boelsems holds nothing back.
Boelsems said she's been working with head coach Dane Pavlovich on more technique and different strategies for pacing herself, but neither can argue with the results of her relentless running style. Boelsems has been the strongest cross country runner for Stephens all season, and she'll be taking on the best the NAIA has to offer Saturday.
By finishing in the top five in the AMC Championships on Nov. 7, Boelsems earned a spot in the NAIA Cross Country National Championships in Vancouver, Washington. It is the first time a Stephens cross country runner has reached the national meet, and Boelsems said the pressure of the race started weighing on her mind as soon as she got done with her school work on Wednesday.
"I'm really nervous, to be honest," Boelsems said while on her way to Kansas City Wednesday night. "Thinking about the race itself is kind of intimidating, but I'm really excited, too, because this is an opportunity I never thought I'd have."
Boelems' anxiety is understandable. She was a walk-on for the cross country team and hadn't run competitively since middle school. Recruited by Stephens for her basketball skills, Boelsems decided to try cross country after some encouragement from her friends.
"I just liked to run on my own," Boelsems said. "I ran five miles a day in high school, and when I got to Stephens I was kind of like, 'Ok, let's try running.' I didn't really have too high expectations of myself until I got close to beating the school record."
The bar will certainly be raised after this season. Boelsems has been the Stars' top performer in every race she's competed in this year, and her goal of surpassing the school record in the 5k is well within reach - she missed the record time of 20:34 by only nine seconds at the Southern Stampede meet in September.
Both Boelsems and Pavlovich think that without rainy conditions, Boelsems has a shot at the top time in Stephens history on Saturday.
"It's certainly something she's got a mindset towards, and it would be an amazing thing for our top time at Stephens college to be in a national meet," Pavlovich said.
Once Boelsems finishes Saturday's race, her focus will shift back to basketball. Pavlovich said that one of Boelsems' greatest challenges this season has been juggling responsibilities for both sports.
"She hit a wall in early October where she was putting in a lot of mileage and doing some stuff for preseason basketball," Pavlovich said. "Basketball's a lot more physical, and you're going a maximum of 94 feet in the gym. Gracie's training in cross country is a mix of speed workouts (with a minimum distance of 800m) and mile repeats where she's going for longer distances. It's a different kind of shape to be in."
All student-athletes must learn to manage their practice schedule and a class schedule, but being a dual-sport athlete makes that even harder. Boelsems, however, has no regrets about the commitments she has made - other than the lack of a social life.
"I'm really glad I'm doing both. Doing cross country, I met really unique people, and it broadened my range out with different kind of athletes. Since my basketball coach is also my cross country coach, we can balance the practice schedules easier," explained Boelsems.
"There are some days when I'll just be exhausted and all I want to do is sleep, but I've got the mentality that I've got to keep going," Boelsems said of her busy schedule. "You can't sleep all day or you're not going to accomplish anything."