May 17, 2012
Oklahoma State sophomore track sensation Natalja Piliusina may just be putting the finishing touches on her second year at OSU, but she is already one of the most decorated runners in Cowgirl history.
Piliusina, who hails from Klaipeda, Lithuania, is coming off of her fourth-straight Big 12 800 meter title this past weekend at the outdoor conference meet. In February, she won the Big 12 Indoor 800 meter title, and she claimed the indoor and outdoor 800 meter conference championships last year as well.
Part of what makes Piliusina so successful is her confidence. She said she now goes into the Big 12 race and the only outcome she'll settle for is a championship.
"Last year, when I won for the first time indoors, I can't say it was a surprise, but the feeling was definitely different than winning now," Piliusina said. "Now when I go to Big 12's, I'm not settling for anything less than first place, so another place would be heartbreaking for me."
To go along with her four 800 meter titles, she is a two-time All-American in the 800 meters after finishing runner up at the 2011 NCAA Outdoor Championships and the 2012 NCAA Indoor Championships. Her time of 2:02.16 at the NCAA Outdoor Championships currently stands as the school record. She also owns the indoor 800 meter school record of 2:03.46, which she set this year at the Alex Wilson Invitational.
After winning the 800 meter Big 12 Championship for the fourth time, coach Dave Smith referred to her as "the queen of the 800 in the Big 12." But she can do much more than that.
As a freshman, Piliusina was a key cog in the distance medley relay team that earned All-America status after placing fifth at the NCAA Indoor Championships when it ran a school record of 11:04.59. The DMR team also won the Big 12 title that season and again this season.
She has also established herself as a dominant runner in the outdoor 1,500 meters as well. She set the school record of 4:09.51 at the Payton Jordan Invitational earlier this season. That mark currently ranks No. 1 among collegiate athletes and ranks No. 12 in the world.
She is even making her mark in cross country, where she was the Cowgirls' top finisher in all five meets she competed in during the 2011 season. She earned all-Big 12 recognition after placing fourth at the conference meet, where she set the school record in the cross country 6,000 meters after running a 19:46.9, which beat the old record by almost 36 seconds.
As a freshman, she was OSU's top finisher at the NCAA Championships, which helped put the Cowgirls in 17th place: their highest finish since 2005. It was also the first time the Cowgirls competed as a team at nationals since 2005.
Along with her confidence, Smith said part of what has helped make Piliusina so good is her incredible work ethic.
"No one outworks her," Smith said. "She's like many great athletes: she's willing to do too much sometimes. You just have to put the brakes on her a little bit or she'll run till she drops."
He also attributes her ability to take coaching as another part of why she is enjoying so much success.
"She's one of the most coachable athletes I've ever coached," Smith said. "(She will ask) `What am I doing today for work outs?' She never questions anything. She does exactly what we tell her to do, she believes in what we're doing. That's part of what makes her great: she's completely confident in what we're doing training-wise and places a lot of trust in the coaches."
Piliusina does give a lot of credit to the OSU coaching staff for all the strides she has made. Running in Lithuania, she said she wasn't improving much, but in her first year in Stillwater, she shaved five seconds off her personal best in the 800 meters.
"He's a great coach," Piliusina said of Smith. "It's so different than home. Home, your coach, you treat him like how you talk to your professor over here. With Dave, you can joke around; you can mess around with him.
"He's more like your friend than a coach, but at the same time, he can be really strict. My relationship with Dave is great and I couldn't imagine having a better coach than him."
Piliusina wasn't even sure if she was going to move to the United States, even though she was being recruited by numerous schools, including OSU. She initially decided to stay home, but the OSU coaches didn't give up. They offered her a visit, which she accepted, and that visit convinced Piliusina Stillwater was the place for her.
Now, after two years of training with the OSU staff and competing with the best collegiate athletes in the country, she feels she can dream big. Like 2012 Olympics big. It was not something she thought possible before coming to OSU, but Piliusina's 1,500 meter time of 4:09.51 is just .61 seconds off the mark to set an Olympic "B" Standard.
"I think it's a dream of every single athlete," Piliusina said. "I couldn't even dream about that a few years ago, but once I came here and started running those fast times, I kind of started thinking about that. Right now, that's my biggest goal."