Although Emily Sisson certainly is not favored in Monday’s NCAA Cross Country, Wisconsin’s prize frosh has proved she’s ready to run up front.
Sisson, who set the High School 5K Record of 15:48.81 at the World Juniors last summer, started her first college harrier season slowly after a track campaign that ran long because of the Juniors.
But after “disappointing” races in Wisconsin’s home invitational and at the Pre-Nationals, Sisson made her presence known in both the Big 10 and Great Lakes Regional, finishing 3rd and 2nd.
Says Wisconsin coach Jim Stintzi, “It was a little trick to make work because she raced so late in the year, with the Worlds, and we had to go gently with her early on. Emily certainly wasn’t sharp. She was disappointed in her early performances but I could see her improvement in workouts and certainly her natural talent.
“I think she’s kind of rounding into shape at the right time and hopefully she’ll race really well this weekend.”
Her goal for Monday? “Run well and have fun with it.”
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself,” she explains. “I don’t want go in without any goals and just to run, but I don’t want to think that I have to be in the top 5 or I’ll be really disappointed.”
Although her father, Mark, ran at Wisconsin in the early 1980s and her mother was a Badger gymnast, neither pushed their daughter into track. In fact, soccer was her first love, not running.
But running did play a role as conditioning for soccer when she was in the 7th grade, and eventually it won her heart, and a pair of fast legs, so much so that she competed in track as well as soccer.
“I always had soccer and track practice the same days—and my parents had a rule that I could only practice one sport a day—and I gradually felt that soccer was taking away from what I was doing running-wise,” says Sisson, who turned 19 on Columbus Day.
By the end of her 9th-grade year, she had won a Nebraska State cross country title and came to the Foot Locker Midwest as an unknown. She was that just briefly, winning the Regional as a rookie and then advancing to the final each of the next three years as well as 4th as a soph and then two runner-up places.
“I think Foot Locker was a huge eye-opener for me,” she says. “To be in San Diego with the best high school runners in the country was such a great experience. I knew then that I really wanted to stick with it, to make it out there three more years.”
Cross country is important to her but Sisson has decided that track is where it’s at.
“Up until this year I think I liked them equally but after this year I think I like track more, with times to shoot for and a flat surface,” she says. “The 15:48. Everything I had wanted to do, I had done. My senior year just seemed perfect and I’m really excited for track this spring, the 3K and 5K indoors and the 5K outdoors.”
Is there a 10K in her future? She laughs and says everyone asks her about, as well as about the marathon: “I know eventually that I’m going to move up to it but I need to get the idea wrapped around my head. But I don’t know about this early, this soon.”
But she’s just 19 and Stintzi says that even a 10K may not be in her near-term future: “After all, she ran 9:16 and 15:48 so clearly she can run with the best kids in the country, so I don’t think we’ll mess with 10K right away. Emily has had her ups and down with injuries in high school and we want to keep her healthy.”
Stintzi knows he has a major talent in Sisson and he’s taken a measured, go-it-slow style.
“We’ve taken the approach that she doesn’t want to or have to worry about what everybody else thinks about her season,” he says. “Sometimes people make big splashes and continue to improve and sometimes they have trouble with that kind of notoriety.”
Sisson looked at a lot of schools but only visited a couple, and eventually decided to stay in the Midwest.
“I liked the recruiting process,” she says. “I really wanted to stay in the Midwest and be close to home [Chesterfield, Missouri, in suburban St Louis, where the Sissons had moved from Omaha]. Both my parents went to Wisconsin and were athletes here and that’s pretty cool but that definitely wasn’t why I chose to come here. I do think I fell in love with the same things they fell in love with.”
As a relatively young runner, she’s still learning her strengths and weaknesses. “Lately I haven’t had a very good kick so I need to work on that, but I don’t know… I am learning more about myself,” she says.
She is a goal-setter, though not to the point of obsessing over it: “I do believe in setting goals, definitely, although I try not to put too much pressure on myself because I realize that I don’t run my best when I do that.
“It’s really important to have confidence in yourself when you’re at this level. I used to struggle with confidence and believing in myself, but you have to have the mentality that you’re going to win every race you’re going into.”
She’s also learned to keep things in their logical places: “One of the biggest things I learned—and it took me a while—is keeping things in perspective. I can’t let how I’m doing in running effect my whole life. It’s part of my life but not my whole life.”
She’s also learned that bad things can happen at any time in a race, even in the Regional, where she ran 3rd.
“I face-planted in the Regional,” she laughs. “It was really bad. The girl in front of me stutter-stepped and I tried to slow down and I went down. It was more embarrassing than anything. It wasn’t very graceful.”
Click here to subscribe to Track & Field News and its free e-mail result service.