Team Spirit: How One Cross Country Team Improved

By: SARAH DAVIS

The classic “Marimba” alarm plays from Shelby Hayes’ iPhone on her bedside table. She blindly reaches for it and fumbles for the slider. After a few unsuccessful tries, she opens her eyes and reads 5:51 a.m. on the screen. It’s only Tuesday.

In 24 minutes, Hayes will join 12 other girls at the Percy Beard Track for their morning workout. Despite the girls’ bed-head hair and baggy eyes, they pull on and lace up their Nikes with an attitude that’s hungry for success.

It’s week number 18 for the University of Florida cross-country team, and it still has six weeks left until the cross-country national championships in November – Six weeks left until it can make a comeback and prove to the nation that it is a top-ranking team.

“We have incredible depth with our runners right now, with everyone on the team looking stronger, more fit and more mentally ready to perform than ever before,” said Hayes, a junior and a top scorer for the team.

The strength, fitness and positive mentality for these girls didn’t come overnight. Hayes said that the team has one of the most rigorous and demanding practice schedules than anyone else at the University.

“With early morning practices every day, it’s difficult to get an adequate amount of sleep, which leads to getting sick,” Hayes said. “Once you’re sick, it’s also hard to recover since you are continuing to push your body and can’t get the extra rest that is required to fight it off.”

The intensity and amount of mileage that the girls endure also leads to injuries, Hayes said.

In 2010, the women finished twenty-ninth at the national meet, not quite meeting up to the typical standards of a UF athletic team.

Stephanie Strasser, a junior on the team, remembered how it felt after crossing the finish line of that race.

“At nationals 2010, we were really just relieved to be done,” Strasser said. “Everyone had a bad race, we were preoccupied and we just weren’t focused. We were definitely disappointed.”

The team didn’t even qualify for the meet in 2011.

At the start of its 2012 track season in January, the team gained a new coach, new athletes and a whole new attitude. The girls were ready to redeem themselves.

“We’re definitely motivated because that race was a kick in the gut,” Strasser said. “It’s going to be hard, but we just need to remember that being complacent gets you nowhere.”

The team has won its first three meets of the 2012 season: the Western Carolina Invitational, the Mountain Dew Invitational and the Saint Leo Invitational.

At the Mountain Dew Invitational on Sept. 15, the only home meet of the season, the team swept the competition off of its feet. Not only did the girls win, but they scored a perfect 15 points by getting their first five girls across the finish line faster than any other racer.

Agata Strausa, UF’s top runner who is originally from Latvia, won the meet in a time of 17:13.

“It was my very first cross-country race, so I was excited to get it started,” Strausa said.  “It was great to be with my team at the start. I really enjoyed the atmosphere.”

The lady gators are now preparing for the pre-national meet on Oct. 13 in Louisville, Ky., where they will compete with teams from all over the country. The Southeastern Conference Championship will take place two weeks later on Oct. 26 in Nashville, Tenn., followed by NCAA Regionals in Tallahassee, Fla., on Nov. 9 and concluding with the NCAA National meet back in Louisville, Ky., on Nov. 17.

“We still have to work on the little things,” Strausa said, “but great things are upon us.”

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