CEDAR CITY — In hindsight, Angie Nickerson admits she was more enamored with the idea of life as a college athlete rather than the reality.
“In the beginning, I think I just liked the idea of running in college,” said the SUU senior who led the T-birds women’s cross country team to its first National Championship meet with a fifth-place finish in the Mountain Regional last weekend. “I wanted to say I was a Division I runner. I didn’t have very high expectations. I didn’t really know anything about it.”
Nickerson didn’t know what to expect from her college career because she didn’t have any idea how talented she actually was.
The Murray native started running when she was five because she idolized her older brother.
“My dad signed my older brother up for this youth track program, and I always wanted to be just like him,” Nickerson said. “I really loved it.”
Nickerson’s mother had three young children, and rather than trying to wrangle her energetic 5-year-old and a toddler, she asked the coach if they’d let Angie participate, even though she was technically too young by a year.
The coach said yes.
“I wanted to collect every color of ribbon,” Nickerson recalled. “There were six of them, but I kept getting the green ones, which were for last place.” She noticed no one her age did the longest races, so that’s what she signed up for at the next meet.
“That’s how I won my first blue ribbon,” she said laughing.
Nickerson was full of enthusiasm, but it didn’t always show in her results.
“I wasn’t a great high school runner,” she said of her cross country career. “I was definitely better at track. I never placed in the top 30 in the state cross country meets.”
She had her best track season her senior year, and her lone scholarship came based on that.
“SUU was the only Division I offer I got,” said Nickerson, who competed in the 800-meter and one-mile races, as well as the 4x400 relay. “I didn’t know anything about it, but I took it. I’ve totally fallen in love with Cedar City. Honestly, I think it’s a hidden gem.”
In addition to discovering the quality education at Southern Utah, the philosophy major who is now earning a master's in public administration realized that part of what was holding her back in sports was her own expectations.
“It took me a couple of years,” she said of trying to figure out how to push herself past mental barriers. “I thought I was more serious than I was. In my head, I thought I was doing all of the things I needed to be doing. I thought I was doing the work. I didn’t realize how much more I could do.”
And it wasn’t just Nickerson.
After an impressive 2012 season, the team struggled. Gradually, she said, things shifted for her, and stronger, more committed runners entered the program.
“I had a couple of hard years where I wasn’t improving and I didn’t know why. I had a really, really bad season (as a sophomore), that culminated in me getting some blood work done and finding out I had anemia.”
She made changes to her diet and training, and that’s when she realized she hadn’t been taking her sport very seriously.
“I run high mileage,” she said. “I take one low day a week, but I’m running pretty much every day. I don’t think I realized how important that consistency was.”
She said cutting down on miles or easing up on her pace felt good at the moment, but over time "it hurt me a lot more than I thought.”
As the T-birds entered this season, they felt they had a team that could do what no SUU cross country team had done before.
“Finishing in the top 10 was awesome,” Nickerson said of reaching a goal she set two years ago. “I was so excited. One thing I’ve learned in the last couple of years is that you didn’t have to feel good to race well. It’s rare that I wake up and I’m feeling awesome. I’ve learned to perform even when I’m not feeling well. But this was one of those days when I really did feel awesome.”
Nickerson finished the 6K in 19:57.6 to lead the SUU women to a fourth-place finish. BYU women finished third, led by Erica Birk’s third-place finish in 19:34.9. Courtney Wayment (20:01.7) finished ninth, giving BYU two runners in the top 10.2 comments on this story
Both teams received at-large bids to Saturday’s national championship meet in Wisconsin. Utah State finished seventh and Weber was eighth. Utah finished in 11th place and UVU was 15th.
In the men’s Mountain Regional, BYU took second behind defending national champion Northern Arizona, while SUU's men earned a fourth-place finish. Utah State was eighth and Weber finished ninth. Utah State’s Cierra Simmons qualified individually and will compete Saturday alongside BYU's and SUU's women.
The women race first at 9:45 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 17.