She may end up the winningest athlete in NCAA history
Jessica Pixler has been tearing up the track and the turf for the past three years, and she could very well finish her college career as the winningest runner in NCAA history.
Never heard of Jessica Pixler?
Quietly but emphatically, Pixler has amassed an amazing collection of hardware at Seattle Pacific University, a small Division II school with a devout Christian underpinning. As the humble and gracious senior enters her final year of eligibility, she has eight individual NCAA titles to her credit -- two in cross country, three in the mile indoors, one in the 5,000m indoors and two in the 1500m outdoors -- and is poised to shatter the all-time mark of nine.
If she wins two more titles as a senior, Pixler will surpass legendary Wisconsin runner Suzy Favor Hamilton and recently graduated Texas Tech star Sally Kipyego, who each won nine Division I titles.
Yes, but Pixler is only a Division II runner, you say?
"She could be running Division I," Pixler's head coach, Erika Daligcon, asserts.
Pixler's PR for the 1500m (4:17.68), which she set in April, would have been competitive at the Division I championships, and her indoor mile and 5,000m times would have had her in the mix in the collegiate big leagues, too.
"It does cross my mind once in awhile," says Pixler, who chose SPU so she could play soccer and run track and cross country, something most Division I schools prohibit. "Sometimes I look down at the four ice baths and hot tubs at the University of Oregon and think, 'That'd be nice,' but running Division II has made me a better person. I'm friends with a lot of my competitors."
She's also become close friends with assistant coach Doris Brown Heritage, a legendary SPU runner in her own right. The 66-year-old Heritage, who last year after 22 years as head coach handed the reins to Daligcon (who ran for SPU in the 1990s), won 14 national titles and five world cross country championships in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At one point, she held the American record in every distance from 440 yards to 3,000m while also owning world records in the indoor mile, 3,000m and 2-mile run.
Pixler says she had no idea who Heritage was when she started cross country season her freshman year. "She'd say things like, 'Back when I was in the Olympics ...' I finally figured out that she was truly a pioneer in women's running."
Pixler calls Heritage her "spiritual mentor." And Heritage says of Pixler, "If I had a daughter like Jessica, I would have thought I'd died and gone to heaven."
Another close friend is teammate -- and roommate -- Jane Larson, who, if not for Pixler, might be winning NCAA titles herself. At the last two NCAA Division II indoor championships, Larson finished second in the mile to Pixler, and she owns a pair of runner-up finishes in the now-defunct 3,000m run outdoors. The two train together, live together, and even take classes together, as they're both English majors. "It's been a blessing and a challenge at the same time," admits Larson, who looks on the bright side. "It does make my position on the track easier. No one's chasing me."
Despite the tight-knit bond, both Heritage and Daligcon give Pixler -- and her teammates -- a lot of freedom with training. "With someone like Jessica, I have no doubt she's going to get out and run hard," says Daligcon, who explains that during the summer months, she gave Pixler guidelines, but let her decide when in the training week to do her three types of workouts: long and strong, fartlek and tempo.
A typical summer training week had Pixler logging 70 to 80 miles. During cross country season, weekly mileage is between 40-50, which scales closer to 40 for indoor season, and down to 30 for outdoor. The girls decide things like how many repeats they want to do on a given day, depending on how they're feeling.
"She's extremely motivated, and an extremely hard worker," says Heritage. "But whatever can make you great, can also destroy you." At the end of the indoor track season in 2008, Pixler suffered a stress fracture in her femur, and MRIs showed two more that had healed in her back, possibly from soccer injuries that she didn't know she had.
For months, she spent every day in the pool, occasionally swimming laps but mostly water running, simulating whatever workouts outs she'd be doing on the track. "If I was supposed to be doing an 800, I'd figure out the time, and do the effort in the pool," says Pixler, who, Heritage says, has learned it's not the harder you work, the better you get, but the smarter you work.
Momentum is going her way again, as, at the end of the 2009 season, she got a last-minute spot into the U. S. outdoor championships, ships and competed in the 1500m against the country's best. She ran 4:21.31 and didn't advance to the final, but she and her coaches know the experience was invaluable.
So what's next after what could be a record-setting year for Pixler? The athlete-scholar (she has a 3.92 GPA and has twice been named the NCAA Division II Women's Cross Country Scholar Athlete of the Year) is considering grad school, but she would like to run professionally. "If I could find a program that allowed me to do both, that'd be great," she says.
But she knows to ink a sponsorship deal, she's going to have to drop her times. And she knows that graduate school, possibly looking at a future as an English professor, is a lot of class time.
"It's not an easy road to take," she says. "I'll make it my little dream to reach for, and see what happens along the way."
For more about Doris Heritage click here.