By Nick McVey
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
A stronger, calmer Crystal Nelson is leading the No. 6 Iowa State women’s cross country team this season. The Cyclone junior is taking a more disciplined approach to racing than in recent years, with a renewed focus on staying patient.
A native of Winchester, Virginia, Nelson has become a national frontrunner, surprising the nation with an individual title at a talent-packed Wisconsin Adidas Invitational and garnering USTFCCCA, Big 12 and Flotrack Runner of the Week recognition. For an encore, she took the Big 12 individual crown, becoming just the second Cyclone in program history to win the Big 12 title (Betsy Saina, 2012).
The 2013 All-American attributes her recent success to staying calm and in control during the early parts of the race.
“I tend to take races out too fast, so staying patient is a big thing I need to work on,” Nelson said. “I’m learning to have fun with it. Sometimes I get caught up competing, and I just need to let go of it all and have fun.”
Iowa State head coach Andrea Grove-McDonough echoed Nelson’s statement and emphasized the importance of her pack leader staying calm.
“Crystal is very tuned into the vibe around her, as well as everyone else’s mood,” Grove-McDonough said. “This season, her approach has been a lot calmer. She’s the kind of a kid that can get nervous and anxious heading into a race. This fall, she seems to be a lot steadier with everything, which may be because all of us are that way as a team.”
Nelson is also benefitting from having a teammate with her at the front of the pack this season in Katy Moen. Referred to by many as the nation’s best 1-2 punch, Nelson and Moen notched back-to-back top-5 finishes at both the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational and the Roy Griak Invitational before finishing first and second at the Big 12 Championship.
Grove-McDonough has dubbed Moen the team’s field general during the race, keeping the team focused on the race plan out on the course. Moen, a second-team All-American on the track (10,000m), described the benefit to having a teammate up front and her ability to boost Nelson during a race.
“It’s really nice to have teammates up with you to bounce off of, to gauge how you’re doing and to work with during the race,” Moen said. “When you’re by yourself, you have to be more trusting of your coach and in yourself. I just try to keep her true to the race plan and keep her patient during the early parts of the race.”
Nelson, who has posted top-10 finishes in seven of her last eight races, is definitely thriving with Moen in the lead pack. Moen’s presence only increases her teammate’s comfort level.
“When I’m by myself in a race, I can feel alone,” Nelson said. “I always have competition to push me, but having a teammate there is so much more relaxing. It’s great to have someone there to communicate with.”
Grove-McDonough was quick to note Moen’s ability to keep her teammates calm and collected on the course.
“That presence of Katy and her sense of calm and patience, she gives that off both in practices and in races,” Grove-McDonough said. “She’s always very composed, and I think that helps Crystal because it keeps her that way as well, especially in the early parts of a race.”
Following the Wisconsin meet, Nelson (No. 3) and Moen (No. 11) both rose rapidly in the national rankings, making the Cyclones one of just two programs with two runners ranked in the top 15. The sudden boom in prominence drew interview requests from both local and national media alike. Nelson and Moen are enjoying their time in the limelight, not taking the attention too seriously.
“It’s been crazy,” Nelson said. “I think a lot of people were underestimating our team and even what we could do individually. We’re just having fun with it.”
Grove-McDonough is proud of how her star tandem is handling the attention.
“They’re handling it all very, very well. I sat [Nelson] down after Wisconsin, and told her to just enjoy it, to have fun with it and to not get stressed out about it. Some people work really hard to keep the media away from their athletes, but I believe it’s fun. We’re just trying to have fun with it, both as a team and as individuals.”
Nelson doesn’t consider herself to be an overly superstitious competitor. However, there is one staple in her routine that is not going away any time soon.
“Pretty much the only habit I have is that I always eat oatmeal, a banana with peanut butter and a coffee for breakfast on the day of a race,” Nelson said. “That’s my only ritual.”
Nelson and the Cyclones return to the course Nov. 15 at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Peoria, Illinois. The Iowa State women will be chasing their fifth-consecutive regional title, while Nelson will look to defend her individual crown.