Michniovaite leads U to NCAA X-C tourney

Mark Heller

One of the best cross country runners in the country is a Gopher, and Minnesota can thank junior Rasa Michniovaite’s poor English for making it happen.
“I got an e-mail from the coach at Boston University,” coach Gary Wilson said. “Michniovaite hadn’t scored well enough on the English parts of her admission tests. So he wrote to other schools and asked if anyone was interested in her.”
Michniovaite took the TOEFL (test of English as a foreign language), but she didn’t score well enough to get into Boston University. The coach at Boston gave up on her before realizing Michniovaite planned to re-take the test.
By the time he learned she scored well enough to get into Boston the second time, it was too late. She was headed to Minnesota.
People have questioned her English skills, but there are no questions about her athletic ability.
“She learns so fast,” Wilson said. “She is just an incredible natural talent. She has so many gifts you can’t teach.”
Michniovaite won the NCAA Midwest Regionals last weekend in Wichita, Kan. She not only won the race, she won it with the flu, collapsing after crossing the finish line.
She will be counted on to lead the Gophers in the NCAA Championships on Monday, but it will be with her results only.
“I don’t really consider myself a leader,” Michniovaite said. “What I’ve been able to do doesn’t make me better than anyone else. It doesn’t mean others can’t do what I’ve done.”
No one in recent Gophers history has. In 1998 alone, Michniovaite has won the Midwest Region, earned All-Region honors, placed third in the Big Ten championships, earned All Big-Ten honors, won four of the six meets she competed in and became the first Gopher ever to win the Roy Griak Invitational.
All this from someone who never ran cross country until this year. Michniovaite said she ran exclusively on the track until recently, competing in middle-distance events, triple jump and long jump. She is the Lithuanian national champion in nine separate events, and Baltic champion in three events.
But now she’s in the NCAA, and whether she admits to it or not, Michniovaite is going to have to run very well if the Gophers are to finish high.
“She just does her thing,” sophomore Elaine Eggleston said. “Speed sums her up in one word. We all have gifts and ability, but we want to be up at Rasa’s level.
“Having her on the team makes us so much better.”
Michniovaite is not one to talk about herself, not because of her rough English, but because she finally feels like she’s part of a team.
“The teammates help so much,” she said. “We work together, push each other, and set examples. It’s easier.”
Still, Michniovaite’s abilities are a large reason the Gophers women are in the position they are — and the position they could end up in.
“She is one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever coached,” Wilson said. “She’s a joy to coach and work with.”