Vasiljeva a pleasant surprise for women’s cross country

Brian Stensaas

Minnesota women’s cross country coach Gary Wilson heads across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe about once a year to scout potential runners.

After landing a literal diamond in the rough – Latvia’s Darja Vasiljeva – two years ago, he may want to consider recruiting overseas more often.

Vasiljeva held her own last season and finished the season as the 2000 Big Ten freshman of the year – the first Minnesota runner ever to earn the honor.

“Last year’s Roy Griak Invitational is where she really stepped it up,” Wilson said. “She’s that kind of runner: The better the meet the better she runs.”

Vasiljeva came in eighth place at last year’s Griak, helping the team to the overall title. She hopes to do just as well, if not better, this Saturday when the Gophers defend their title at the Les Bolstad course.

“I think we can do it,” she said of the team’s chances at repeating. “I don’t like talking about a race before it happens; I just know that I will go out there and run hard and do my best.”

Vasiljeva, who was coached by her father Nikolai, back home in Jelgava, Latvia, said she came to the United States to reach a life-long dream.

“My father always told me how good the education was here and how good the competition was here,” she said. “He always encouraged me, so I studied and trained to come here. It’s a dream come true.”

The dream almost didn’t come true, however. Both Wilson and Vasiljeva agree the soft-spoken runner had a bad day at the European Championships in Latvia. She ran poorly due to an injured right foot. But Wilson decided to give Vasiljeva a chance, and his hunch paid off.

“I was so sad coming off the track,” Vasiljeva said. “I thought no coaches would want me. But then (Wilson) came to me and gave me Minnesota’s information and I was so happy.”

Due to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. The Gophers have only competed once this season – an intrasquad meet Sept. 8.

Vasiljeva completed the 5,000-meter course in 18:33, tops on the team. Saturday’s Griak is 6,000 meters long, and Wilson believes the sophomore can keep up her encouraging marks.

“She’s picking up right where she left off from last year,” Wilson said. “All things considered, she and the rest of the team are responding well. It’s been a tough go but it is that way all over the country.”

In addition, nearly every member of the team, including Wilson, has been under the weather of late, further hampering Minnesota’s ability to repeat as Griak champions.

Also thrown into the mix are the nine teams running on Saturday ranked ahead of the No. 19 Gophers. Last year, there were seven teams ranked ahead of Minnesota and the team pulled through.

Leading by Vasiljeva’s personal example, the Gophers are hoping once again the underdogs can emerge victorious.


Brian Stensaas welcomes comments at [email protected]