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Oklahoma State Student Athlete Spotlight: Natalja Piliusina
November 13, 2012

When most young athletes decide to play his or her respective sport at the collegiate level, the decision normally comes with a celebration and the satisfaction of having four years of school paid for.

Although they devote a majority of their time to athletics, student athletes still have the opportunity to earn the same education as any other student, giving them the option of a promising future outside of sports.

For Oklahoma State's Natalja Piliusina though, that decision was made on chance.

Piliusina, a junior from Klaipeda, Lithuania, began her career as a standout runner in her home country. In high school, she set the junior Lithuanian record in the 1,500 meters, won national titles at several different age groups and placed in the top 10 in numerous World Youth Championships. 

Despite achieving many personal accomplishments in Lithuania, Piliusina said she was always looking for something more.

"I was getting really tired of running at home," Piliusina said. "There isn't very much competition over there and I felt like I stopped improving. It was getting old."

Piliusina decided she had to make a decision. She was recruited by multiple schools, but initially chose to stay at home to take some time off.

"In a way, I was scared to come to the United States," Piliusina said. "It's much easier as an American when you are recruited and you know so much about all these schools. You never know what kind of school you could end up at as an international."

Fortunately, Oklahoma State head coach Dave Smith had begun to recruit Piliusina from early on. Smith had already established a heavy influence on recruiting international students for the Oklahoma State cross country program, having brought in 12 international players from Canada, Africa and Europe at the time.

Smith invited Piliusina on an official visit to Stillwater because he saw more than just athletic ability in Piliusina. He said her maturity and her intelligence is what helped him recruit her as heavily as he did.

"My philosophy is to look for the best student-athletes I can find that also fit what the program is trying to do here," Smith said. "Not every good athlete fits, but I quickly found that Natalja was easy to be around. She's one of the most coachable athletes I've ever worked with."

Piliusina's visit to Stillwater turned out to be the deciding factor in where she would take the next step in her life. She fell in love with her coaches, teammates and the atmosphere.

She also took the advice of teammate Tom Farrell, who was in a similar situation. Farrell left his home of Carlisle, England to take the same chance as Piliusina.

Farrell said the decision wasn't easy for him either, but he's glad it helped out a teammate.

"I was kind of the same way, like Natalja," Farrell said. "But we both knew once we got here that our teammates would be great to train with and the coaches would help us out with anything. Since then, we've had great success here."

Combined with her experience and desire for increased competition, Piliusina accepted Smith's offer and joined the Oklahoma State cross country program in the fall of 2010. She immediately made an impact by earning all-region honors and helping the team qualify for the NCAA Championships.

Early success, in addition to relationships formed with coaches and teammates, helped Piliusina come to terms with her decision. She said she had no regrets after leaving her home of 19 years.

"For me, I was gambling," Piliusina said. "I figured I had nothing to lose by coming to OSU. Luckily, Coach Smith kept recruiting me and I fell in love with everything about OSU."

Piliusina's satisfaction helped her continue her contributions to the team. She was awarded her first All-America honor her freshman year as a part of the OSU indoor relay squad that placed fifth at the NCAA Championships. Piliusina also was the first Cowgirl to cross the finish line at the outdoor championships, leading the team to a 17th-place finish.

Still, Piliusina's freshman year was nothing compared to what she would eventually achieve.

Smith thinks Piliusina's success has come from her overall comfortability with the program and those who surround her. He said she has done nothing but improve since she arrived in Stillwater.

"Natalja has ended up being even more talented than she was when we recruited her," Smith said. "Her decision to come run with us has turned her into a great runner. She's done great things for our program."

Throughout her career at Oklahoma State, Piliusina has set five different school records, won six individual Big 12 Championships and has been named an All-American in five different events.

Coming to the United States has also opened more international opportunities for Piliusina, as well. Despite a few nagging injuries, she came within a half-second of qualifying for the trials of last summer's London Olympics.

Piliusina's success proves that her choice to run at Oklahoma State seems to be one of the best decisions of her life. She left her family, friends and everything she knew just to pursue more competition and a chance for self-improvement.

As for now, Piliusina hopes she can qualify for next summer's World Championships in Moscow. For her long term goals though, Piliusina said she hopes to be a coach after she is through with her competitive running days.

"It's something that I would really enjoy doing," Piliusina said. "I love running and I love being around runners. It's definitely not boring, and you always have something to do."

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