By Jason Elmquist
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Natalja Piliusina is no stranger to heading into the NCAA Outdoor Championships as the top-ranked runner in the 1,500-meter.
She did it a year ago, and she’ll do it again this week in Eugene, Ore., when she runs in the semifinals at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
The difference, however, is this year she goes in with a chip on her shoulder.
The Oklahoma State junior from Lithuania has the memory of last year’s disappointing finish — in which she was on track to win the event, but ultimately finished 10th — to help fuel her this time around.
“Last year I went in as the No. 1 and that’s when I really felt the pressure. This year, I just know what to expect and trying to learn from the mistakes from last year,” Piliusina said. “... Last year, I don’t even know what happened. I just wasn’t feeling good for a whole four or five weeks leading into it, so by the time I got to it I wasn’t sure how the race was going to go.”
According to her coach, Dave Smith, the distance runner has matured greatly since the disappointment at last year’s NCAAs — which was compounded with a disappointment when attempting to qualifying for the London Olympic Games.
“This year, she is more calm and she has better poise. She realized that even though last year was a disappointment, the world didn’t end and she knew she would get another shot,” Smith said. “Last year, she was trying to win the NCAA title and make the Olympic standard at the same time, and it was too much. This year, she’s focused and really wants to win a national championship.”
Piliusina also has taken a different approach to this season. After struggling down the stretch a year ago, she delayed her start in the cross country season in the fall and has dedicated her focus this spring to the NCAA championships — before shifting her preparation for the World Championships in August.
“I think last year we made the mistake of trying to go after both — win NCAAs and make the Olympic standards — and at that point it was probably too much for me to take in,” Piliusina said. “This year, I’m more focused on NCAAs, and while we still have World Championships later, I’ll start thinking about them when I’m done with the NCAA.”
Piliusina earned an automatic berth into the NCAA championships by running a 4:13.73 at the West Region, which made her the top qualifier from the region to back up her No. 1 ranking.
Now she looks to earn her first win at the national level. Her best finish in the NCAA championships has been second — in the 800 meter Outdoor Championships in 2011 and the 800 meter in the 2012 Indoor Championships. At this year’s Indoor Championships in March, she finished fifth in the 800 meter.
“I feel really good about where I am right now. All my workouts are going great — we’ve made some changes from my workouts last year, so I feel way stronger than I did last year,” Piliusina said.