BURNABY — Ask any collegiate cross-country runner about the most unique aspects of their sport, and they will talk with passion about the power of the pack, and how each individual’s best performance is first-and-foremost a way to raise the level of the entire team.
“You want to run with your teammates, not against them,” says Simon Fraser junior harrier Olivia Willett on the eve of the Clan’s trip to Monmouth, Ore., for Saturday’s West Regional meet at the Ash Creek Preserve, the direct qualifier to the NCAA Div. 2 national championship race, Nov. 23 in Sacramento.
“We’ve all been working to narrow down the times between each runner,” continues the grad of Port Coquitlam’s Riverside Secondary. “We want our one-through-seven, our one-through-five to be as close as possible. In every race, we look for the (SFU) girl in front of us and try to close that gap. Ultimately, we want everyone together in one big pack for the entire race. That’s our ultimate goal.”
Truth be told, this season’s edition of the Clan women’s cross-country team is one of its youngest ever, and that has made the challenge of securing a return trip to the nationals one of the greatest challenges in the team’s NCAA era. Last season, Simon Fraser finished ninth at the national championships.
Yet interwoven within that plot line has been rise of Willett, who over the past 12 months has gone from a talented-and-promising sophomore to the team’s top-performing and team-leading junior captain, the latter all the more amazing because before she came to SFU, Willett had competed outside of the club ranks as an independent runner.
“My dad would just enter me in a bunch of cross-country and road races,” says Willett, who finished seventh as a Grade 12 for Riverside at the 2016 B.C. high school cross-country championships. “Every week I just ran a different race as an individual.
“That’s why it’s so much fun to have a big group of girls to run with as teammates, because I never had that experience in high school,” she continues. “It is so much more rewarding to work with a team where you have the same goals.”
Willett’s rise has been, like her running style, steady and consistent.
Last season, she placed fourth at the GNAC conference championships, leading Simon Fraser across the finish line for the first time that season.
She hasn’t looked back since.
Willett was the top Clan finisher at the 2018 West Regionals (fourth) and national championships (36th), and this season has been the top SFU finisher at each of the team’s five races, including the GNAC final (seventh).
That’s eight straight and counting, something which has not escaped the eye of longtime head coach Brit Townsend.
“She is a tough, tough competitor, she’s consistent and she can grind through the longer distances because she is more of that true cross-country runner,” says Townsend, who in many instances has manufactured her top harriers from track’s middle-distance realms.
“I think it’s partly her build, and partly the way she can carry her aerobic pace right through 6K,” Townsend says. “Most of our kids are 800m-to-1,500m runners, and maybe the steeplechase. They can have flashes of brilliance, but sustaining that hard grind the whole way is something she is very good at.”
Reference the cold and muck of last season’s national championship race in Pittsburgh, and the snow which greeted her and her Clan teammates at the recent GNAC’s in Montana, and Willett’s eyes light up.
“I love the toughness of cross-country,” she says. “I love the grittiness you need, where you can be running on snow, and where it’s a battle all the time.”
The Clan’s biggest battles this weekend won’t so much come from the elements as from the youth of their collective age.
Of the top five SFU runners from last season’s second-place team finish at West Regionals (in order Willett, Sophia Kaiser, Addy Townsend, Chelsea Ribeiro, Sophie Dodd), Willett was the only returning runner taking part in last week’s GNAC championships.
Willets, sophomores Megan Roxby and Emily Chilton, freshman Grace Chalk and junior Calli Charlton made up the first five across the finish line. Senior Claire Noort and freshman Nicole Lindsay rounded out the top seven.
Townsend has studied with pride not only the increase in Willett’s performances in both training and races, but in the way she has embraced team captaincy despite never having raced from a team perspective before coming up Burnaby Mountain.
“She has really emerged as more of a leader than in any other year and I know it has partly to do with the fact that she was named the captain,” says Townsend of Willett’s quiet but assured style of leadership.
Her chances of getting back to the nationals?
If the young Clan can beat some big odds and overtake some of the more-experienced teams with a top two finish, that would take care of itself.
Otherwise, the only other way is if a Clan runner can secure one of the meet’s top three finishes among athletes not a part of a qualifying team.
With that criteria in mind, Willett would seem to have the best chance among the Clan contingent.
“We have no guarantees for sure, but she’s looked very good in practice,” Townsend reports. “I have seen some really great thing over the last couple of weeks that indicate she is going to have one of her best races. She’s running her best times all year, and at any other time.”
The Clan men, led by junior Chris Sobczak’s 10th place individual finish, took second place overall at the GNAC championships.
With seniors Carlos Vargas and Thomas Gallagher leading the way, they will also chase a second-place overall finish, which would in turn punch return tickets back to the national championships.
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