Vasiljeva strives to regain form after lost season

The Gophers’ senior from Latvia sat out all of 2003 with a torn ligament in her leg.

Kent Erdahl

There are plenty of fresh faces and fresh legs running with Minnesota’s women’s cross country team this fall.

The Gophers have nine incoming freshmen, and coach Gary Wilson said they bring a lot of talent to the team despite their ages.

But if Minnesota makes another run at the NCAA Tournament after a two-year hiatus, it might depend on a familiar face with a rebuilt – and hopefully refreshed – leg.

After sitting out the entire 2003 season with an injury to the ligament connecting

her pelvic bone to her femur, Darja Vasiljeva is back and hoping to lead the Gophers once again.

Running it off

This wasn’t supposed to be Darja Vasiljeva’s year. The fifth-year senior from Latvia should have been the Gophers’ top returning runner last season.

After all, Vasiljeva had been Minnesota’s top finisher in every meet during her junior year in 2002.

During that season, she also ran in her third NCAA Championships race in as many years, and she posted the fastest 6k time in school history with a 20:49.77.

But during her three seasons, Vasiljeva didn’t just lead by example. She basically led in every other aspect as well, and her influence made an impact on her teammates.

“During my freshman year (2001) she was a really good leader to have on the team,” Zoe Nagell said. “She had a really holistic view about running and health, and she said she loved racing and the strategy behind it. It was nice because people sometimes forget to focus on that.”

But while Vasiljeva led the team on the course, there was one challenge she couldn’t overcome – pain.

Vasiljeva said she first noticed the pain in the ligament high in her leg when she was training with her father around the age of 11 or 12, while still in Latvia.

Despite the nagging pain, Vasiljeva said she could always manage to run effectively, albeit cautiously.

“Maybe I was just lucky or something,” Vasiljeva said.

“I had everything inside, but sometimes my body just said, ‘Hello?’ “

Cautiously or not, Vasiljeva proved her value to the team with little sign of pain until the spring of 2002, when she was running track for Wilson.

“She got to a point where she literally said, ‘I can’t sprint coach. I just can’t move. I’m fit, but I can’t go when I need to go,’ ” Wilson said.

Without knowing the status of the injury, Vasiljeva went back to Latvia during the summer of 2002 with the intent to run with the Gophers again that fall.

But when she failed to make progress when she returned, Vasiljeva took a magnetic resonance image and found out just how bad her leg was.

“It was amazing that she could even run at all because (the ligament) was probably 80 percent torn from the bone,” Wilson said.

Taking a breather

Although Vasiljeva’s surgery required her to sit out the entire 2003 season, she said the benefits definitely outweighed the costs.

“It was okay because I knew I would be relieved after I had the surgery,” she said. “I was in so much pain that it wasn’t even funny – to run or anything. I knew I had six weeks on crutches and then I’d be done.”

But just because she was done with crutches didn’t mean Vasiljeva could regain her form right away, or help salvage the Gophers’ year.

“When you lose your queen bee like that it kind of knocks the wind out of you as a group,” Wilson said. “And I think we felt the effects of that for most of the season.”

The team had trouble recovering in the early stages of the season without its leader, but Minnesota came back with the help of Nagell to finish sixth in the NCAA Midwest Regional by the end of the year.

Nagell led the team with her first All-Region selection, but she said it was hard to get used running without Vasiljeva.

“It was definitely different because we were used to having her as kind of a gauge,” Nagell said. “It was kind of like running in the dark because she was always our guide.”

Regaining her stride

After a year of rehabilitation, Vasiljeva still isn’t completely back to full strength.

“I think she’s probably at about 80 percent right now,” Wilson said. “But an 80 percent Darja is pretty good.”

Wilson credits all of the trainers and doctors that have and continue to work with Vasiljeva in order to get her back into shape.

He said her progress has been great, but he emphasized that they don’t want to rush her back into full speed workouts.

If all goes as planned, Vasiljeva will be back to 100 percent by the final meets of the season. Wilson thinks by that time the team will be even stronger thanks to the experience the rest of the squad has had while she was away.

“It’s nice to have Darja back, but it’s also nice because the strength and maturity of each individual is also better,” Wilson said.

Vasiljeva said she’s simply looking forward to running with her teammates again – as long as it’s pain-free.

And she doesn’t even mind the new addition to her previously ailing leg.

“I have two titanium anchors there holding everything together, but it doesn’t beep at the airport, so its fine,” she said. “I don’t mind.”