Mickelson a welcomed addition to women’s track

Ben Goessling

If, somewhere along the line, someone wrote a recipe for success both in Division I athletics and in the classroom, this probably wouldn’t be it:

Take 14 professional school credits, add one spot on a Big Ten champion relay team and a dash of sleep. Mix accordingly.

But for Lisa Mickelson, a sprinter for Minnesota’s women’s track and field team, the above isn’t just an ill-advised plan. This is her life.

The 22-year-old is attempting a feat that few would try: balancing a high-intensity training routine with the stresses of nursing school.

So far, Mickelson seems to be handling it quite well. The Burnsville, Minn., native placed fourth in the 400-meter dash and ran on Minnesota’s victorious 4×400-meter relay at the Big Ten indoor championships in March.

“You wouldn’t think it would have been such a bad idea,” she joked. “But it’s been more fun than I ever thought.”

Mickelson, in her senior year of eligibility, graduated from Wisconsin-La Crosse in 3.5 years with a psychology degree. But when she donned a cap and gown a semester early, the NCAA ruled she couldn’t put on her spikes for the Eagles during the 2002 season.

That’s when Mickelson contacted Gophers coach Gary Wilson about running for Minnesota while in nursing school at the University.

“We knew she was a talented kid, but when you’re dealing with NCAA rules, you don’t get too excited until you see the whites of their eyes,” Wilson said. “We greeted her with cautious optimism.”

After a lengthy appeals process, the NCAA ruled Mickelson could run for the Gophers – in 2003.

Last year, she was left with nothing to do but train.

Mickelson was an 11-time All-American at Wisconsin-La Crosse, but the jump from Division III to Division I track dropped her immediately into a training group where her best times put her in the middle of the pack.

“(Former sprint coach) Sydney Cartwright threw me in with the rest of them right away,” Mickelson said. “I think he was testing me.”

In the eyes of her teammates, Mickelson passed with flying colors.

“Just the fact that she worked out with us last year, knowing she couldn’t compete, tells you everything you need to know about her,” said All-American Shani Marks, who takes the baton from Mickelson in the Gophers’ 4×400-meter relay team. “Knowing what she went through to get here, we never have to question if she’s running as hard as she can.”

Now that Mickelson is competing for Minnesota, she faces another test: trying to keep up with her competitors while spending twice as much time in the classroom as they do.

“There aren’t very many kids who could pull this off,” Wilson said. “When she comes in, she’s pretty pooped, and we have to do everything we can to make her life easier.”

Wilson said the Gophers do everything from adjusting Mickelson’s workouts to allowing her to travel to this weekend’s Drake Relays a day late so she can avoid missing class.

Mickelson, who held two Lake Conference records after graduating from Burnsville High School in 1998, said she initially shied away from Division I track because she was afraid of accepting a scholarship and not meeting expectations.

But after her long, tiring road to the main stage, Mickelson has no regrets.

“Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to run Division I track from the beginning. Who wouldn’t?” she said. “But it has been worth it. I feel like if I can manage this, I can do anything.”