Turtle finds niche in cross country

by Ryan Schuster

“Turtle!” the members of the women’s cross country team call out.
The shy, quiet runner obliges by pushing her nose to one side, making a strange face and imitating turtle noises.
Everyone on the team erupts in laughter in response to the odd display. This has become an inside joke on the team, a sort of ritual that they play out.
That shy, quiet runner is junior Kari Thompson.
“You wouldn’t even know she was there,” women’s cross country coach Gary Wilson said. “She never asks for things, she just gives.”
The face was something that Thompson made up in elementary school. When she was a freshman, the cross country squad went to Ely, Minn., on a team trip before the season. All the runners had to take turns saying something about themselves.
Not surprisingly, the bashful first-year student did her imitation of a turtle. The nickname has stuck ever since.
Although she may pretend to be a turtle to amuse her teammates, on the course she is more like a rabbit. The short, slim runner keeps a steady pace throughout most of the race, frequently passing rival runners along the way.
“I’m more of a longer cross-country runner,” Thompson said. “I need to run in the middle of the race because I don’t have a lot of sprinting power.”
Thompson also runs the 10,000-meter race in track, which is twice as long as the women’s cross country team runs. She prefers cross country to track, however, because it is more of a team sport and it offers better scenery than 25 laps around the track.
She didn’t always like to run, though.
“I played tennis until my ninth-grade year in high school,” Thompson said. “I used to make fun of cross country runners. Before I joined cross country, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to run more than a mile.”
While at Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Minn., she developed a love for running, as well as a frustrating affinity for injuries. She suffered through ankle and calf injuries her sophomore season, a difficult battle with anemia her junior year and a stress fracture her senior year.
Despite those setbacks, Thompson was a three-time letterwinner in track and cross country and was all-state in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter track events her junior year in high school.
Because of her frequent injury problems, she was recruited mostly by division II schools. Coach Wilson, however, took a chance.
Since coming to Minnesota, Thompson has fulfilled the promise that Wilson saw in her. During her career as a Gopher, Thompson has also remained injury free. Her confidence, however, needed improvement.
“It was really hard, especially my senior year (in high school),” Thompson said. “I worked out hard, but my confidence level was way down. When I first came here, I doubted even coming out my freshman year. Each year I’ve improved a little more.”
During her freshman year with the Gophers, Thompson’s best time was the 19:35 mark she ran at the Nike Invitational. This season, she is consistently finishing a minute faster than that time. Thompson has become Minnesota’s number three runner this year, improving steadily throughout the season.
She hopes that improvement carries over to this weekend’s Big Ten Cross Country Championships in Bloomington, Ind.
“My goal is to be in the top 20,” Thompson said. “That’s what I’m shooting for. It depends on how well the other runners do.”
With another year of eligibility remaining next year, Thompson should keep on getting better with each race.
“She’ll be another factor again in cross country next year,” Wilson said. “She’s improved leaps and bounds from when she got here.”
If that improvement continues, cries for a certain hard-shelled amphibious reptile should become less frequent next season as the rabbit in her comes out.