Crystal Nelson's Rise to NCAA Cross Country Championship Contender, by Cait Chock

Crystal Nelson, photo courtesy of 

Cait Chock wrote this piece on Crystal Nelson. For the next couple of weeks, watch Cait Chock's pieces on NCAA Cross Country Contenders. 

Crystal Nelson's Rise to NCAA Cross Country Championship Contender 

By: Cait Chock

Crystal Nelson is amidst a breakthrough of a season. Having steadily improved each year at Iowa State, last year she finished 32nd at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, this year she's a contender for the title. 

A pinnacle point in earning that distinction was winning this year's Wisconsin Adidas Invitational, overtaking Shelby Houlihan and Emma Bates. Everyone sat up and noticed, Bates is the top returning NCAA finisher, with her 2013 2nd place distinction.

"Coming into the cross country season, my goal was to just stay healthy and help my team get to Nationals again," shares Nelson. Clearly those goals were too modest, but it's often most refreshing to watch as a runner goes on to surprise even themselves, "I definitely wasn't expecting my name to ever be thrown around for contention to win the National Title."

Such a dramatic leap in a single season can at times put athletes in a precarious situation. The sudden burst onto the National radar is followed quickly by more expectations. The potential danger of pressure-overload looming overhead, it takes a keen sense of maturity to handle the onslaught of media attention and fanfare. Not every harrier can handle the pressure.

Nelson, speaking with a perspective reflective of wisdom beyond her years, can. "Once my name started to be thrown into the mix, Coach told me to enjoy it but also to not let it affect training. Since then I've been treating this season like any other and trying not to make any drastic changes." Credit to 2013 Iowa State addition, Coach Andrea Grove-McDonough, for helping progress her star runner both in physical training and mental practice. 

Grove-McDonough has preached patience to Nelson, both in racing tactics, and looking long term. That lesson, learned and applied, a key in this season's rise. Nelson's more controlled start goes hand-in-hand with better channeling pre-race nerves and excitement. Rather than allowing herself to get too caught up in those nerves, letting excitement and anticipation cross the line into stress and anxiety, Nelson looks to her team and coach to remind herself that, ultimately, she's running because of the joy it brings her.

"My coaches and teammates help a lot with nerves," explains Nelson. "On the way over to the course, my coach will play pump-up music for us and usually dance in some obscure way to make us all laugh. She would much rather us go into a race feeling loose than going into it feeling tense or pressured to accomplish a certain goal. As a team, once we are off the bus, we try to keep each other as relaxed as possible during warm-up and pre-race strides by cracking jokes and reminding ourselves that it's just a race and we are here to have fun."

While leading the Lady Cyclones, Nelson has company at the top with teammate Katy Moen. The duo went one-two at the Big-12 meet. Moen's presence has helped Nelson's workouts too, "Having Katy right there with me has been a huge part of my success this year. Katy and I have done a majority of our workouts together and because of that we can sense how the other is feeling during the workout." 

A special bond is formed between training partners, a unique relationship built around miles, shared suffering, and at times spoken in a language unnecessary of actual words. One knows the other and, working together, each pushes the other to highs they couldn't have foreseen alone. When one has a bad day, the other is there to pull them along. "I was feeling crappy during a workout and Katy let me run behind her so that I could relax a little and focus on getting through the workout. This style of training transfers over to races as well. During races we tend to work together to get through tough portions of the race."

With such a powerful one-two punch in Nelson and Moen, the Iowa State women are ranked fifth Nationally and, much like their star, are experiencing a whirlwind of their own during these past 16 months under Grove-McDonough's presence. They too are taking everything in stride, "We are all really excited to see what we can do heading into Nationals!" says an excited Nelson. "Instead of putting a number goal on ourselves, I think the biggest thing we want to accomplish is for all of us to have a solid day at Nationals. If we can get everyone to the starting line healthy, relaxed, and ready to go we will have already been successful."

The spirits of the Iowa women, that excitement and closeness, isn't something new that's come with the higher rankings. Looking back to two years ago, when Nelson learned then Coach Corey Ihmels would be leaving and Coach Grove-McDonough would be taking over, Nelson shares it was that team unity that helped her deal with any uncertainties. "Initially when our old coach left, I was a bit worried. The feeling of not knowing what coach I would have for the next 3 to 4 years was scary. However, as a team we came to the conclusion that all of us love Iowa State and that if we stuck together, we could accomplish big things down the road with a new coach."

Though, it didn't take long for Coach Grove-McDonough herself to quell any nerves the runners may be feeling. She won them over, both in personality and performances. Now all eyes are on the present.

Next up will be the Midwest Regional on November 14th. Between now and NCAA Cross Country Nationals, it's a matter of staying calm and fresh. "The next few weeks will be focused on recovery and listening to my body. I've made the mistake before of getting too excited and taking my runs harder than they should be before a big race. Coach McD has been constantly reminding me that I'm supposed to feel good before Nationals but that doesn't mean I can go out and run 6:10 pace for an easy run. As she told me the other day, 'You've gotta keep all the bullets in your chamber until NCAA's.' "

When Crystal Nelson steps to the starting line at the NCAA Cross Country Nationals she will relaxed, surrounded by her team, and more than likely having laughed during a little pre-race dancing. She will be confident from the momentum of a stellar season. But most importantly she will be lined up with a smile, "I think the main goal is to just enjoy the rest of the season and have fun."

Though a smile, indicative of passion in its purest form, is one of  the most powerful weapons.


Caitlin Chock ( set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running and founded Ezzere, her own line of running shirts ( You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.

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