By Caleb Surly
Big12 Campus Correspondent
A lot of runners wear the same shoes, but it’s the different paths they run that define what they hope to achieve.
Oklahoma State senior Monika Juodeskaite, a member of the Cowgirl cross country/track and field team, has big dreams, but the sacrifice she had to make is even bigger.
Born and raised in Lithuania, Juodeskaite’s life has always revolved around sports. She started running in fifth grade, but when she turned 16 years old, a decision had to be made: Running or windsurfing.
“Running is just in my blood,” Juodeskaite said.
Her mother, Inga, was a two-time Olympian, who competed in Athens and Sydney in the marathon and 20,000 meter events. Juodeskaite said she always wanted to run because of her mother.
At a young age, she was inspired by her mother’s dedication to running, as well as her ability to withstand any given weather condition, including rain, snow and extreme temperatures. Juodeskaite initially couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of what her mother was able to do, but she quickly adopted the same work-ethic. Living with an Olympian wasn’t easy, especially when Juodeskaite’s mother became her high school coach.
“After every race, I would get some feedback from her,” Juodeskaite said. “Other kids’ parents would tell them they did a good job, but mine would say ‘You did this bad and need to work on this,’ even if I did good, because they know I can improve.”
Having her mother as a coach was also an advantage, not only because Inga was an Olympian, but also because it’s easier to coach someone you know, rather than someone you aren’t familiar with.
Under Inga’s coaching and guidance, Juodeskaite earned the title of Lithuanian Champion twice, won the Lithuanian Junior Championship three times and placed third in the Baltic Sea Championships.
Her accomplishments, along with connections earned from her mother, gained attention from Division I coaches in the United States, including Zivile Pukstiene, a fellow Lithuanian-native and assistant track and field coach at OSU. Juodeskaite said she was surprised when head coach Dave Smith made the trip to Lithuania to visit her.
“My mom told me I have to go because it’s the best opportunity,” Juodeskaite said. “I gave up my family, left home and came so far because I want to be an Olympic runner.”
“This is a Division I school and a good university for runners. We get everything. It’s like ‘wow’. You get treatments, all of these facilities, the best races and competition,” Juodeskaite said. “The conditions are perfect. That helps you improve so much. And of course good coaches and the team is so friendly it feels like I’m not so far from home.”
When Juodeskaite arrived on campus, she had to adjust to a change of scenery and the way she trained. She said Europe’s training style is based on speed and fast workouts, whereas Smith focuses on mileage and maintaining a stable level of health, mentally and physically.
Only her mother had coached her, so it took time for her to trust in Smith’s program and set aside her stubbornness when adapting to a new coaching system.
“Once I started believing in [Smith’s] program, I started improving,” Juodeskaite said. “There is no doubt he is the best coach ever. Just following and listening to what he is saying is the reason I’ve come so far.”
Improving is an understatement; even Smith said he couldn’t have guessed where she would be in her career.
“She has willed herself into success,” Smith said. “I think she’s about to have another big jump forward. She’s better right now in workouts than she’s ever been. She runs with more confidence, is more confident in the training and believes in the system.”
At the 2012 NCAA Cross Country Championships, she finished in 41st, a major improvement from her 184th-place finish as a freshman.
Juodeskaite went on to take 23rd-place in 2013, achieving the first All-American honor of her college career after missing the mark by one spot the previous year.
“It was the best day of my sports career,” Juodeskaite said.
In 2012, she set a personal best of 16:47.59 in the 5,000 meters. Since then, Juodeskaite has shaved her time down to 16:00.02, the third-fastest time in school history. She also ended the 2014 outdoor track season as one of the nation’s top runners in the event, finishing 20th at the national meet and garnering honorable mention All-American honors.
Despite Juodeskaite’s plethora of success, Smith said he believes her best is yet to come.
“She’s getting better and better and better,” Smith said. “No one wants success more than she does. She’s going to be an Olympian and has big things in her future.”