Take a quick peek at Minnesota’s women’s track and field roster, and you’ll see the usual plethora of Minnesota- and Wisconsin-raised athletes.
But listed right smack in the middle is freshman Sarah Nelson, who grew up in the rainy town of Sarnia, Ontario.
Nelson has so far experienced a season with the typical freshman ups and downs. But last weekend at the cold and rainy Drake Relays, she bore down and competed strongly, earning third place in the long jump.
For the rest of this season, the Gophers coaches are looking for similar strong mental performances.
“That goes for the general population,” assistant coach Matt Bingle said. “Your focus is your reality.”
Bingle first saw Nelson compete while she was in high school and he was an assistant at Eastern Michigan.
Training in lesser-funded conditions than a lot of athletes in the United States, Nelson worked on her long jump in the hallways of her high school.
“And concrete isn’t so hot for running on,” Nelson said.
But after Nelson won the Canadian Junior National Championships in the long jump, Bingle recruited her to his new school – Minnesota.
Bingle worked closely last year with jumper Shani Marks, who finished second in the triple jump in the 2003 NCAA Championships.
Big Ten track teams are known for developing their stars, and Bingle said he sees potential in Nelson.
“She didn’t have a lot of coaching in high school,” Bingle said. “She was weak, but had very good foot speed and a strong work ethic so she’s very coachable.”
Nelson’s outdoor marks earlier this season at Oregon and Northern Iowa weren’t as high as Minnesota coaches were hoping for.
But she took a step forward in development at the Drake Relays by jumping just as far – 18 feet, 7 inches – under much less than ideal conditions.
“I’ve been after her hard to be mentally into it,” Bingle said. “At Drake she competed. I asked her to do that, and she did well.”
With three more years to develop as a Gophers athlete, Nelson has her sights set.
“I’d like to be a Big Ten champion,” she said.
The Gophers are sending their developmental athletes to the St. Thomas Invitational today, but 33 team members are going to the Iowa Twilight.
The Twilight is a meet many Gophers say they look forward to, as it is an eight-team competition run under the lights Saturday.
“It’s more of a team atmosphere,” senior Rachel Schutz said. “It’s one of the only meets where the men’s and women’s teams are both there so everyone is cheering each other on.”
Coach Gary Wilson held a team meeting Monday to address the Gophers’ mental toughness for the rest of the season.
At the Drake Relays, Wilson said he felt many athletes didn’t continue the progress they made by competing well at meets such as the Oregon Invitational on April 10.
“I told them we’re going to have 75 people on this team next year,” Wilson said. “And I’m more than willing to keep 75 people. But I’m not going to keep anyone who isn’t willing to come every day and put the ‘M’ on.”