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Brian Lawdermilk/NCAA Photos
Utah's Chelsea DiGrazia (No. 286) finished fifth in the 1,500 meters with a time of 4:32.01 at the recent Mountain West Conference championship meet in Fort Worth, Texas.

Back in 1986, the name "Chelsea" wasn't exactly the most popular girl's name in America, ranking No. 73, according to the Baby Names Ocean Web site.

Yet a pair of Chelseas born that year ended up together on the University of Utah track and field team and are two of the top performers for a young and improving program.

Chelsea DiGrazia and Chelsea Shapard were both born 22 years ago, and this weekend they will compete for the Utes at the NCAA Regionals in Northridge, Calif. They will be joined by three teammates — Josefin Berg, Shayla Houlihan and Alyssa Abbott.

At the recent Mountain West Conference meet in Fort Worth, Texas, Shapard won the 400-meter hurdles for the second straight year with a track-record time of 58.51, while DiGrazia finished fifth in the 1,500 meters at 4:32.01.

Third-year Utah coach Kyle Kepler calls his two Chelseas "very gifted athletes" who are leaders for the rejuvenated U. track program.

There's actually a third young woman on the team with the same first name, although sophomore Chelsey Kaplar spells her name differently.

Kepler says it's not a big problem having three women with the same first name, because they run in different events and often train at different times, but the unusual circumstance hasn't gone unnoticed.

"It's a running joke — people ask, 'Why didn't you recruit a Chelsea this year, what's going on?'" he said.

"It gets a little confusing on trips sometimes, so we have to resort to nicknames," said DiGrazia, who used to be called "Elko" after her hometown in Nevada when there was still another Chelsea on the team. Now that she's the eldest Chelsea, she gets to be called by her real name, while the others usually go by "Shap" and "Kap" to make things less confusing.

"We get mixed up a bit, but she's a distance runner so she's in her own world," says Shapard, with a laugh.

DiGrazia has battled injuries throughout her career, including a stress fracture in her foot, plantar fascitis, a painful heel condition, and an SI joint inflammation in her back. Before she ever came to Utah, she fractured a hip while running a race in high school. But she's been injury-free this spring.

She came to Utah as a walk-on after excelling in several sports in Elko. When she showed up for the first day, she thought the warm-ups were the entire workout and was shocked when she was told they had to run to Sugarhouse Park and back, about six miles.

"It was a little intimidating at first," she said. "I had never done anything like that before."

Although she was an 800-meter runner in high school, she joined the cross country team and ran distance races in track. When coach Kepler arrived, he noticed DiGrazia'a speed and, after trying her in the mile, said, "This is what you're going to do."

"It's my favorite race because it's endurance plus speed," says DiGrazia, who has already set the school record in the mile — 4:53 — which she calls the highlight of her Ute career.

"She's one of our natural team leaders with her outgoing personality," Kepler says. "She is somebody who works tremendously hard. We have to be careful because she's fragile, but she's learned how to take care of herself and avoid the injuries."

Shapard's first love growing up in Park City was skiing. She was an Alpine ski racer from ages 7 to 18 and also excelled in soccer. In high school, she ran track as a favor to a coach she knew, but didn't really enjoy running the hurdles, an event in which she now excels.

"Actually this is the last sport I thought I would ever do," Shapard said.

She wanted a college scholarship, but wasn't getting offers in soccer or skiing, so she accepted a scholarship at Weber State before transferring to Utah, closer to her hometown.

"My first year was rough, because I wasn't used to running so much," she said. "I like it a lot. My teammates and coaches here make it phenomenal. I'm glad everything turned out this way."

Of Shapard, Kepler says, "She brings a great blend of competitiveness with a sense of realism. She understands what it takes to be good and does all the things the right way to be good. She's a great teammate."

Ask her what her biggest accomplishment has been at Utah, and Shapard doesn't even mention her back-to-back conference victories.

"My biggest accomplishment is learning to really love the sport," she said. "I came from not liking it at all to loving it now. You can ask anyone who helped me in high school and they crack up because I said, 'I'm never going to do that, it's stupid.'"

Of the two Chelseas, Shapard has the best chance of advancing to the NCAA Championships scheduled June 11-14 in Iowa. She's ranked 13th in the nation and third in the West, and if she runs her usual time of just under a minute, she should make the NCAAs, says her coach.

DiGrazia, on the other hand, will need a career-best about 10 seconds lower than her MWC time. Her goal this week is to get a personal best, under the 4:26 she ran at the Drake Relays, and at least qualify for the finals at the regionals.

Among the other three Utes competing Friday and Saturday in Northridge, Abbott will compete in the 800 and 1,500 meters, Houlihan will compete in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and Berg will compete in the hammer throw.

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