U walk-on runs for love of sport

by Allison Younge

Last spring, you may have seen Kristie Stiles at the front of political lines helping to wash Sen. Paul Wellstone’s signature green bus. Or maybe you listened to her during one of her three-hour stints as a DJ for Radio K.
But lately, Stiles has sidelined those pastimes to energize the Gophers women’s track and field team as a middle-distance runner.
“When I walk into Bierman (Field), I just have to say, ‘OK this is my time to run, and I’m not going to do anything else,'” Stiles said.
The intense focus on track is producing positive results for Stiles, a freshman walk-on out of Eden Prairie High School. Last weekend at the Minnesota Maroon and Gold Open, she clinched a photo finish win in the 800-meter race.
Stiles was in fifth place upon approaching the final 200 meters of the race, but she managed to finish .001 seconds better than her Iowa State runner-up. Stiles clocked a 2:18.02 for the win, just .6 seconds slower than her personal best time.
“She’s got — what we say in the business — a nose for the finish line,” Gophers coach Gary Wilson said. “She loves competing and will do what she needs to do to win.”
Stiles realizes that it’s her competitiveness that motivates her to want to achieve, and though she doesn’t like to admit it, being a freshman and a walk-on helps.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Stiles said. “I really look up to those girls whose pictures are on the wall who were walk-ons and became All-Americans.”
While Wilson believes that potential is a curse to any athlete, he is excited to talk about Stiles’ exceptional qualities. Since the beginning of the indoor season last fall, she has shown steady improvement and a unique ability to handle pressure.
“She doesn’t let things fluster her,” Wilson said. “If she has a bad race, she forgets about it right away and goes on to the next thing.”
For Stiles, it is easy. Outside pressure doesn’t interfere with her performance because she simply runs for herself.
“I’ve always tried to find the reason why I was running instead of why I should run for someone else,” Stiles said. “The day I stop running for myself is the day I quit.”
Judging from her recent results with the Gophers, Stiles’ track and field end doesn’t appear to be in sight. This wasn’t always the case, however. Until her junior year of high school, Stiles was set on a college swimming career. She rigorously trained in the pool, competing for her high school during the school year and practicing twice a day during the summer. Finally, she was forced to choose between the pool, which was her past, and the track, which was her future.
“I just loved track so much that swimming kind of had to go by the wayside,” Stiles said. “I really wanted to run.”
A four-year high school track letter winner and state champion on the 4×400 relay team, Stiles walked into the Gophers’ program with no monetary incentive. Her only objective was to develop her running skills.
“I knew that the running program here was excellent, and that it would make me better,” Stiles said. “I had a real positive experience with track in high school, and Wilson is exactly like my high school coach.”
Stiles will enter her second Big Ten championship meet next weekend, with improvement continuing to be her central focus. Her goals include making the finals in the 800 and clocking her personal best time. Wilson is confident that this walk-on freshman has the tools to compete among the best.
“She doesn’t bring any emotional baggage to the table,” Wilson said. “That’s what’s going to make her great someday.”
While Stiles may return to Radio K to control the air waves after the season is over, her interest in politics has faded.
“This spring, I reevaluated politics and decided that I wasn’t happy with what our leaders were doing,” Stiles said. “So I quit politics and started my own party, which is the only party without a platform. I just don’t buy it anymore.”