Nelson's Strides Getting Bigger and Bigger
AMES, Iowa - You would have had to search very hard to find someone who thought Iowa State distance standout Meaghan Nelson would today be running among the nation's top collegiate distance runners before she arrived on campus. Not that the 2006 Iowa prep cross country champion from Cedar Rapids Xavier hadn't demonstrated talent as a high school competitor. But the leap from high school achiever to NCAA Division I front runner is precipitous.
One person who believed in Nelson was Iowa State head cross country coach Corey Ihmels.
"Often the dividing line between who makes it and who doesn't is their work ethic," Ihmels said. "You have to live the life of a good runner before becoming one. There are many who aren't willing to live that life. The more Meaghan learned the more she began living that lifestyle."
Ihmels should know. The Cyclone head coach had taken Lisa Koll, an unheralded Iowan and helped her become a four-time NCAA champion. Nelson's teammate, All-American Dani Stack, who had never finished in the top 20 of a Minnesota state cross country meet, also bought in to Ihmels' program. Stack, All-American Betsy Saina and Nelson will lead Iowa State into Saturday's Big 12 Cross Country Championship in College Station, Texas.
Nelson and her teammates have come a long way.
Before the 2008 season, Ihmels elected to redshirt Koll and All-American Grace Kemmey. It would be a year to endure to set up a national qualifier squad for 2009. It meant that true freshmen like Nelson and Stack would be ticketed for frontline duty. For a young Cyclone team expected to finish last in the conference, ignorance was bliss.
"Back then we were so clueless," Nelson said. "We were just going out and running. We didn't yet understand the opportunities that were out there for us."
That team surprised everyone, placing ninth at the league meet as Stack and Nelson gave a glimpse of their bright futures.
Nelson's biggest success didn't occur overnight. But after overcoming injuries she could feel herself turn the corner last April.
"Around the time of the (2011) Drake Relays, my workout times were fast," Nelson said. "I was running PRs for different distances."
Nelson, while redshirting the outdoor season, demonstrated her progress at Drake last April, winning the 5,000-meter run at the prestigious event as an unattached competitor.
This season, the kinesiology major has been blossoming into perhaps what Ihmels first saw of her when she arrived on campus. Nelson led Iowa State's cross country team at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational, placing ninth among 305 runners on Oct. 14 in Madison, Wis. It was the toughest field of the season on the schedule.
"She is someone who has put in four years of base mileage and keeps her focus on academics and running," Ihmels said. "It is the reward."
Now, in her junior season, the goals for Nelson and her teammates are clearer than they were in 2008.
"We know what is possible and the rewards that are out there for the successful teams," Nelson said.
Ultimately, she credits Ihmels for setting the bar higher than what she first thought possible.
"He sets the goals and seems to know just what an athlete is capable of achieving."