By Adam Navarro
With all she’s got, she dashes toward the finish line. Blonde hair flying, sweat dripping down her face. She’s staring at the finish line. The rest of the runners are left staring at her.
She broke the school record in her very first high school race, leaving many to ask just how good she can be. Enter Nicki Southerland, the freshman phenom cross country runner.
Southerland competed in the IHSAA cross country state meet on Saturday, October 31. She placed ninth overall after being third with about 100 meters to go. Despite being the only freshman to place in the top 10, for Southerland, it wasn’t good enough.
“I did not have a good race. I was kind of tired, and I felt like I could’ve done better,” Southerland said.
She views this as a good opportunity to learn and to help her do better in future meets.
“I can definitely improve on it next year. I learned that there are a lot of really good girls, and now I know that,” Southerland said. “I definitely have a lot of potential if I just keep working hard and doing what I have been doing.”
Regardless, this accomplishment adds to the list of them she built in her freshman season.
Southerland has been running since she was young, participating in various races, and she started running cross country in sixth grade.
“My family is pretty athletic and my mom always ran, so she just kind of signed me up,” Southerland said.
Southerland’s mom, Jen, competed in women’s cross country at the University of Indianapolis.
“My mom has really motivated me athletically because she was a really good runner, so she gives me advice, and she knows what I can accomplish,” Southerland said.
It was also in middle school that Southerland caught the attention of girls’ cross country coach Mackenzie Dye-Conley.
“My initial impression was of a fast little kid. I had actually seen her race in some races outside of school and was genuinely impressed by this tiny kid with blonde hair flying behind her as she outran all the other kids,” Dye-Conley stated.
As good as Southerland was in middle school, it was just the beginning of what she would accomplish.
In Southerland’s first high school race at the Riverview Health Invitational in Carmel, she broke the school record with a time of 17 minutes, 35 seconds, nearly two minutes better than the previous record of 19 minutes, 29 seconds, set in 2013 by Jenna Parsons.
“It’s really cool, and hopefully I can break it again. It’s just a good feeling,” Southerland said.
She believes that her motivation and hard work are what separate her from other runners.
“I’m pretty motivated, and I work really hard because I know that that’s what you need to do to get better,” she said “You don’t always want to do the workouts, but you just have to, knowing you’ll get better as a result.”
Coach Dye-Conley believes that it isn’t just Southerland’s talent, but rather what she does with it that separates her.
“Nicki has incredible talent. However, lots of kids have talent. I’ve even worked with other kids with similar talent,” Dye-Conley said. “It’s what she does with her natural abilities that sets her apart. Nicki doesn’t let any chance of getting faster slip by her. Because she is self-motivated, she doesn’t often need other people to encourage her to go for a run when she doesn’t feel like it, or if the weather’s bad. She gets out the door and does what she needs to in order to get stronger and faster.”
Southerland’s training routine consists of four miles of running every day, lifting weights, and doing various core exercises. Just recently, she added jumping rope into the mix.
Coach Dye-Conley noted how Southerland’s work ethic rubs off on her teammates.
“Nicki is a hard worker. She’s not afraid to push herself (and other teammates) in workouts, regardless of what the others are doing. Her work ethic has been a good motivator and example for some of the other athletes on the team, despite this being her first year at the high school,” Dye-Conley said.
One of those teammates is junior McKayla Robles. Robles describes Nicki in practice as “always putting in the work that she needs to put in, and even a little extra. I never see her slacking off at all.”
While Southerland takes running seriously, Robles noted that “she’s actually a really funny person once you get to know her.”
Coach Dye-Conley added, “While Nicki has a serious and committed attitude during workouts, she often goofs around with the other athletes at other times. She’s like any other athlete in the fact that she enjoys the social aspect of the team in addition to the athletic side of things. She supports her teammates and encourages them during workouts and races, just like they do for her.”
Robles said that Southerland’s attitude toward running is what separates her from other runners.
“From a lot of other runners, I have seen how they just kind of come off as cocky, and Nikki just always tries to tell people ‘good job’ whenever she sees them after races, and just tries to talk to people,” Robles said.
Nicki Southerland has just wrapped up year one of her high school cross country career. She’s already broken records, been to state, and set some goals most freshman athletes wouldn’t yet have. But Nicki Southerland isn’t just another freshman athlete. She’s a freshman phenom.