Sisters at heart

MU middle-distance runners share many of the same qualities
Thursday, February 16, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Ashley Patten and Trisa Nickoley adhere perfectly to the production line of talented middle-distance runners that are continually delivered by the Missouri’s track and field program. The girls are so similar, they could be sisters, albeit sisters who just happened to be hand picked for their excellence in the 800-meter run.

Nickoley, a petite sophomore, is almost an exact replica of Patten, her senior predecessor. Aside from a difference in height, their muscular frames, long lists of accomplishments and equally long, matching blonde ponytails make it difficult to tell them apart. The fact that your eyes barely have time to focus before they blow right by doesn’t help. Just watching them train can be exhausting. But together, they separate themselves from the pack.

They met at the 2003 USA Track and Field Junior Championships, where the now inseparable pair showed their prowess. Patten won and Nickoly was second in the 800-meter run, and the rest is history, or rather a history in the making. Especially for Patten, who has started her senior season with a bang after winning the 800-meter race at last weekend’s Iowa State Classic in Ames.

Refusing to get swept up in a wildfire 57-second first quarter that had the rest of the girls laboring to the finish, Patten found her kick with 50 meters to go, coming back from as far as eight to win the title.

Placing first in a field of almost 100 runners, automatically qualifying for the NCAA indoor championships and setting a new indoor personal record of 2 minutes, 4.73 seconds in the event, she is continually forced to raise her own bar, giving Nickoley larger shoes to fill each time she competes. Patten’s next goal of setting a new school indoor 800-meter record is within reach, especially since her recent performance at Iowa State was the fastest time in the 800 meters by a Tiger in six years. Ashley Wysong set the MU record in 2000 at 2:03.95.

Misouri women’s distance coach Rebecca Wilmes credits Nickoley for the boost in Patten’s capability.

“When Ashley was here the first two years, she was the half-miler for our team,” Wilmes said. “She would do high quality workouts, but physically and mentally wore out a little bit.

“Now, she’s got someone else to run with, so it’s a little bit of a mental break because there is someone there to lock into a rhythm with and push you. I think those things have helped Ashley kind of go to another level.”

But Patten isn’t the only one who benefits from the pairing.

“She is a little bit better, and I know that this kind of training can make me a better runner too,” Nickoley said.

Already an accomplished runner in her own right, Nickoley, like Patten, was recruited by Missouri from Tecumseh, Kan., specifically for the 800-meter race.

“Trisa was one of the top half-milers in the country,” Wilmes said. “It was kind of like, she was already good, and you knew that she could get better.”

In her first year at the university, she earned her place alongside Patten when she was honored as the Big 12 Indoor Freshman of the Year for her performances in the 800-meter run, both individually and as a part of the distance medley relay.

“So it’s helping Trisa too,” said Wilmes. “They’re just kind of going hand in hand.”

At the time of the junior championships, Nickoley was already considering coming to Missouri. When they met, both girls said they knew their pairing would bring an intensity and fun to their training that they had not yet known.

“She was one of my deciding factors to come here,” Nickoley said. “Then, when I came on my visit, we just clicked really well. I felt like we were at the same caliber.”

According to Patten, their opposing yet complimentary backgrounds are what really allow the girls to draw out each other’s strengths, while improving on their own.

“She is very speed oriented, whereas I come a little bit from a strength background,” Patten said. “Her strengths are more my weaknesses and vice versa, so it works out really well.”

Having a training partner who possesses a strength the other may be lacking can definitely bring out the competitive nature in the girls.

“Both of them are really intense,” Wilmes said. “I’ve actually had to tell them to lighten up in practice. But I like that intensity, it’s what makes them great.”

This competitive yet encouraging environment that results from friends who happen to be training partners is, if anything, like a sibling rivalry that is confined solely to the track.

“We’re definitely competitive. We’re very competitive girls on the track,” said Patten of her relationship with Nickoley. “But off the track, before meets and stuff we’re just goofing off. It’s a lot of fun. We’re really close, so it’s definitely more of a sisterly thing.”

As Patten prepares to conquer her final collegiate season, she will in effect, “pass the torch” to Nickoley, who will continue making strides to follow the footsteps of a middle distance great. Because of her friendship with Nickoley, and her relationship with coach Wilmes, Patten plans to stick around for at least another year and continue to train as a post-collegiate.

“I think there is more to come with Trisa, with both of them,” Wilmes said. “They will just continue to get better.”

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