While most students sleep soundly stretched out on mattresses, junior Sara Sutherland and the women’s cross country team have their own 6 a.m. stretch-out on a course or at the Richard Mithoff Track before morning drills. Up and ready for daily practice, Sutherland smiles, focused. Blonde hair swinging side to side behind her, she pushes herself to run just a little faster and tighten her calves just a bit more.
But a few hours after practice closes, Sutherland returns to student life. Working toward government and Spanish degrees, leading freshman Bible study for sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma and “trying not to eat too many cookies,” her athletic commitment never strays far from her mind.
“[My teammates and I] come to practice every single day at 6 a.m. and do all of these things, really trying to prepare and do the best we can as runners and athletes,” Sutherland said. “We want to represent the best that we can and show people that Texas distance is a group of girls that really cares about what they’re doing.”
Sutherland does just that. She led Texas to a win at the Pac 12 Preview Elite Invitational in September, finishing third in the 5K with a time of 17:12. She again placed top three at Austin’s Grass Routes Grand Prix 5K at 18:43.43, and at the Oct. 13 Pre-Nationals Cross Country Meet, Sutherland finished ninth (20:10.7) in the 6K out of more than 250 competitors. Most recently, Sutherland’s third place (20:19.7) at the Big 12 Cross Country Championships marked the highest Longhorn ranking at the meet since 1998.
Ensuring nutrition, hydration and sufficient sleep (although she does admit excessive coffee intake), Sutherland leads a balanced life. But it’s her perspective rather than her actions that put her on top.
“The best way I can be prepared is not to think about [competitions] too much,” Sutherland said. “At the end of the day, it’s a race, and I like to think about these things as being fun. I only get to be a student-athlete for four years of my life. I’m just trying to enjoy the ride, enjoy this time and enjoy being excited about it.”
Although many athletes profess the same excitement before matches, Sutherland’s mindset persists even beyond the finish line.
“It’s not necessarily pertinent to race the way that everybody else races,” Sutherland said. “Rather, that I’m comfortable and I’m working the way that works for me.”
As she runs with her own style, Sutherland inspires teammates to also maximize their physical and psychological strengths as athletes.
“Sara can always make a competitive and sometimes stressful environment fun and exciting,” junior Marielle Hall said. “Having someone who is constantly working hard to get better and performing at such a great level motivates me and the whole team to contribute our best efforts in practice and on race day.”
Sutherland’s closeness doesn’t just reach her teammates. The girls think the world of coach Stephen Sisson, as well, and hope to win for him.
“It’d be really awesome for Steve to gain that recognition,” Sutherland said. “It sounds kind of ridiculous, because obviously I want to win. But I just think that’d be the coolest thing, because he would be going bananas and I’d be laughing the whole time.”
Watching his girls run and understanding that “at the University of Texas, there’s always pressure,” Sisson recognizes how strong his team’s dynamic is.
“They’ve created a real sense of teamwork, much stronger than I’ve ever experienced in my time here,” Sisson said. “Our [top two] runners in Marielle Hall and Sara Sutherland, being the physical leaders, position themselves in a great place. We have some front running that will inspire and excite a group of six-seven behind them. Seeing our top two girls in the battle for the championships will motivate them as well.”
As this weekend’s NCAA South Central Regional Championships near, competitors feel their nerves start to rise. Not Sutherland, though. She’ll stay calm and collected as she pushes herself to the front.
“It’s funny when people come out to the race and get nervous or get in their own head, because this is why we’re doing it — because we love to compete and love to be out here,” Sutherland said. “Race day is my favorite day. I love coming out here and running, even if it turns out not the way I want. I’m always happy to be here.”
Printed on Friday, November 9, 2012 as: Sutherland takes on leadership role for Texas