FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Rebecca Mehra’s first two track and field seasons have been anything but smooth. But a winter conversation with coach Chris Miltenberg and a healthy outlook physically and mentally has the Stanford redshirt freshman running better than ever.
The payoff for Mehra is an NCAA Championships berth. Mehra was among six Cardinal on Saturday and 14 total to emerge from the NCAA West Prelims at University of Arkansas and advance to the NCAA Championships June 11-14 in Eugene, Ore.
Stanford’s Saturday qualifiers were Michael Atchoo (1,500 meters, 3:45.11), Darian Brooks (triple jump, 52-0 3/4), and Joe Rosa (5,000, 14:12.86) among the men. Aisling Cuffe (5,000, 15:55.16), Jessica Tonn (5,000, 16:19.36) and Mehra (1,500, 4:19.90) qualified among the women. The top 12 in each event from each of two regionals, including the East Prelims in Jacksonville, Fla., advanced.
Of Stanford’s 14 qualifiers, Atchoo is the only graduating senior. The total exceeds last year’s by one, and the number of men’s qualifiers increased from three to seven. Also, Stanford’s NCAA qualifiers have good representation besides distance running, with three throwers and two jumpers.
Though Stanford had a strong day Saturday, it also was marked with the disappointment of having two All-Americans, fifth-year senior Tyler Stutzman in the 1,500, and redshirt junior Erik Olson in the 5,000, fail to advance.
“There were a lot of great positives,” said Miltenberg, in his second season as Stanford’s Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track and Field. “It’s especially exciting to see how much the needle is moving on the men’s side. We’re heading in the right direction.”
Mehra’s emergence this season has been overshadowed by the accomplishments of her teammates, but it begs telling anyway. After accomplishing the rare feat of qualifying for four California state meets in both cross country and track while training under Jeff Atkinson (yes, the Olympian and Stanford mile record holder) and Brian Shapiro at Palos Verdes High, Mehra suffered two injuries as a freshman that caused her to redshirt the indoor and outdoor track seasons.
A stress reaction or fracture in her femur was nasty enough, but it was even worse when added to a tendon injury to her knee. However, Mehra recovered and maintained her health, and got faster. A 4:47 personal record in the high school 1,600 has given way to 2014 times of 4:40.46 in the mile and 4:17.82 for 1,500.
Experience can explain her improvement, Mehra said. She knows what to expect now, and has the benefit of training with four All-Americans among the Stanford women’s distance team, and two others who completed their eligibility in the winter.
Mehra now is Stanford’s top metric miler, was third in the Pac-12, and finished fourth in her section on Saturday on the way to placing eighth overall and securing one of the dozen qualifying spots in the 1,500.
“It’s been an incredible year,” Mehra said. “A huge learning experience.”
An up-and-down cross country season provided some glimpses of Mehra’s potential, but it was her disappointing 4:51 indoor mile at the Penn State National meet on Feb. 1 that proved to be the turning point, she said.
That night, Miltenberg and Mehra had a long conversation. Mehra had been beating herself up mentally before she even got to the starting line, and her performances reflected her lack of confidence.
Miltenberg convinced her to take a different approach. Stay relaxed and calm before races, be more positive, and trust yourself and your training.
“Track is such a mental sport,” Mehra said. “I just needed to get my head screwed on straight.”
Part of her new approach was to treat the NCAA West Prelims as matter-of-factly as possible. Teammate Joe Rosa told Flotrack.org that “this race is probably more nerve-wracking than nationals.” But Mehra could not afford to follow that line of thinking.
“I knew if I put myself in position to compete with 200 to go, I could do it,” she said. “I really couldn’t let myself think about it.”
With a lap to go, Mehra found herself in tough spot, boxed inside a tight pack, with some elbowing and contact. However, she stayed patient and with 100 meters left, “found a slipstream,” to move up and ensure a top-five finish and automatic qualification to Eugene.
“Her whole trajectory from January to now has been amazing,” Miltenberg said. “It’s about her trusting the process. I can remember that conversation. We talked about what the realistic expectations should be and what goals she should set for herself.”
Mehra still receives texts from Atkinson and Shapiro before her races. She knows they believe in her. Now, she truly believes in herself as well. And the results show it.
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In the triple jump, Brooks blasted to a 52-0 ¾ on his first jump, which allowed him to have the cushion to pass on his final three of six attempts. Brooks has managed a heel injury this season, but there was no need to put unnecessary stress on it with passage to Eugene already in hand.
In the women’s 5,000, Tonn and Cuffe each placed second in their heats, Tonn by moving up to the front of a chase pack that trailed Texas’ Marielle Hall. For Cuffe, it meant moving to the front with three laps to go and cruising to the finish, with Boise State’s Emma Bates catching her in the final strides.
“The race went out comfortably fast,” Cuffe said to Flotrack. “The goal was to stay relaxed as long as possible.”
As for the final in Eugene, “There will be a lot of people very fast and a lot of people looking to make a move,” Cuffe said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. I can’t wait.”
Rosa joins his twin brother Jim, who qualified in the 10,000, in their first NCAA outdoor championships. The men’s 5,000 was much stronger than the East Prelims field and that caused some havoc with Olson. Olson’s first heat included the three best distance runners in Division I – Oregon’s Edward Cheserek, Arizona’s Lawi Lalang, and Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka.
They took the pace out hard. Olson was left trying to lead a chase pack to bridge the gap. With the work he expended and the pace, others sat and kicked past, and Olson was left out of Eugene, though his time of 13:58.62 was the ninth-fastest among the two races.
Rosa made a move to the front with three laps left in his heat.
“In a race like this, where everybody is so good, it’s kind of a big move to make,” Rosa said. “But he thought he could take the sting out of the kicks of his competitors and the strategy worked. Rosa was third, but well within qualifying position.
Again, there was some bittersweet feelings after the men’s 1,500. Atchoo was second in heat one, but Stutzman fell too far hard behind to the point where making a decisive move would do no good. Stutzman was 12th in his heat in 3:50.18, ending a strong career for the three-time All-American.
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Stanford’s Saturday results
q = qualified for NCAA Championships
1,500 – 10, Michael Atchoo, 3:45.11q; 17, Marco Bertolotti, 3:46.56; 21, Tyler Stutzman, 3:50.18.
5,000 – 9, Erik Olson, 13:58.62; 14, Joe Rosa, 14:12.86q; 32, Garrett Sweatt, 14:40.98.
Triple jump – 6, Darian Brooks, 52-0 3/4wq (15.87m), (best legal, 51-6 ½, 15.71m)..
Discus – 32, Nick Budincich, 171-0 (52.12m); 41, Lucas Rowley, 167-4 (51.00m).
1,500 – 8, Rebecca Mehra, 4:19.90q; 15, Cami Chapus, 4:23.54.
5,000 – 2, Aisling Cuffe, 15:55.16q; 10, Jessica Tonn, 16:19.36q; 21, Vanessa Fraser, 16:39.19.
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Stanford’s NCAA Championships qualifiers:
Michael Atchoo, 1,500
Darian Brooks, triple jump
Dylan Duvio, pole vault
Luke Lefebure, 800
Jim Rosa, 10,000
Joe Rosa, 5,000
Lucas Rowley, hammer
Valarie Allman, discus
Brianna Bain, javelin
Aisling Cuffe, 5,000
Rebecca Mehra, 1,500
Claudia Saunders, 800
Jessica Tonn, 5,000
Amy Weissenbach, 800