June 12, 2013
By: Blake Zimmerman -
What’s the first thing you would do when getting home after winning an NCAA title?
When Oklahoma State cross country/track and field assistant coach Bobby Lockhart arrived in Stillwater, his bags still packed from the trip to Eugene, Ore., he saw Piliusina jogging through the north parking lot of Gallagher-Iba Arena.
“I wish I could tell you I was surprised,” Lockhart said. “I know it’s not the best answer, but I wasn’t surprised. I just knew she was on a run.”
That’s because it’s no secret—Piliusina is as competitive as they come.
“She’s already preparing for the next race,” OSU Coach Dave Smith said. “When we got back, she told me she needed to go on a run. I asked her ‘you aren’t going to take a day off?’ She said ‘no.’ She went home, parked her car, changed and went running. I sat on the couch for an hour, and she went on a run. That’s who she is. She did tell me her first run as a national champion felt great.”
Her run to get that national title was one for the ages.
The 12 runners stayed in a jumbled pack for most of the 1,500 meters. Piliusina was boxed in on the inside part of the track with 300 meters to go, in sixth place.
“With 300 meters to go, I was having flashbacks to last year,” Smith said. “It looked the exact same to me. I thought ‘Oh my gosh, it’s happening again.’”
The race he’s referring to was the 2012 NCAA Outdoor women’s 1,500 meter final. Piliusina entered the race with the No. 1 time in the country. She started the race strong, and led for most of the way. With a lap to go, she thought she was going to win.
She finished tenth.
“Last year, all the pressure of entering as the favorite got to me,” Piliusina said. “I put pressure on myself. I kept telling myself ‘I have to win. I have the fastest time.’ Things just didn’t go right for me. Even the weeks leading up to the race were a disaster. My workouts weren’t good. I was getting way too nervous, and that did me in.”
Entering the final turn, Piliusina made her move. She moved into fourth place on the inside of the track, and things were looking better, but she was cut off. With less than 200 meters to go, she had to back off and let people pass her, so she wouldn’t be boxed in.
With 100 meters to go, she was in seventh.
“At that point, I wouldn’t say I gave up, but I knew I wasn’t going to win,” Piliusina said. “I felt fine, but there was no way out. Something changed. I just wanted it so bad. Coming close so many times, and all the work I had put in entered my mind. I wanted it so bad.”
The 10th place finish the year before, the runner-up finishes in the 2011 NCAA Outdoor 800 meters and the 2012 NCAA Indoor 800 meters and the workouts like the one Coach Lockhart witnessed became fuel.
On the home stretch, with less than 100 meters to go, Piliusina saw a window, and went for it.
“I kept flashing back to last year,” Piliusina said. “There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t think about that race. I don’t remember all of what happened, but I found a way.”
Piliusina split six opponents and flew down the inside lane into second place. Then, she jumped back outside with about 50 meters to go. She only had one runner left to pass, and she wasn’t going to finish in second again.
By the time Piliusina crossed the finish line, she had a cushion of more than 10 meters. She was finally No. 1.
“With 20 meters to go, I knew I had it, but I didn’t want to celebrate,” Piliusina said. “I wanted to make sure. But when I did cross, it was excitement. It was relief. It was everything. When I watched the races before mine, and saw other people crossing the finish line and celebrating, I wanted that. I wanted that happiness that you get when you accomplish something you dream about.”
After Piliusina finished her post-race interview, she saw Smith outside the fence bordering the track. She ran over to give him a hug.
“Honestly, I was relieved,” Smith said. “I knew how hard she had worked, I knew how badly she wanted it. She had done everything we could think of to keep her healthy and ready to go. She sacrificed a lot. If she didn’t win, it was going to be so hard on her. It was bad on her last year, but she doubled down this year. She was more ready for it, and understood the pressure.”
Later on that day, Piliusina found a link to her race online and watched it. Even she couldn’t believe what she saw.
“If I was a spectator at the time, watching that race, there’s no way I would have guessed I would end up winning,” Piliusina said. “I still can’t believe it happened.”
She believes it now. The minute she got back from Oregon, she was out there again, trying to get better.
“My job isn’t done this season,” Piliusina said. “I have some racing left to do in Europe, so I wanted to do a little shakeout after a long trip. Just so you know, that run felt great. My first run as a national champion couldn’t have gone any better.”
She has some racing left to do at Oklahoma State as well. Piliusina will be a senior next year, and she will get to continue her assault on the OSU track and field record books.
After her run in Eugene, each run from here on out will probably be a little sweeter.