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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Karissa Schweizer looks to lead women’s cross-country to new heights

Coach Marc Burns: “She’s a really respectful, thankful person, and she’s a coach’s dream because she does whatever you tell her to do and does it to a T.”

Karissa Schweizer runs in a high school cross-country race.

Courtesy of James Kirby

Karissa Schweizer (bib number 657) competes at a meet.

Jeff Curry/Courtesy of Mizzou Athletics

Junior Karissa Schweizer, Missouri’s top women’s cross-country runner, grew up in a running family.

Her grandfather Frank was a Division II All-American runner at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her parents, Mike and Kathy Schweizer, met at MNSU and were also All-Americans. Her brother, Ryan, runs for Notre Dame, and her younger sister, Kelsey, is a high school freshman running for Karissa’s alma mater, Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, Iowa.

For many high school runners, all the dinner-table talk about running might be overwhelming — but not for Schweizer.

“She never felt that way,” said James Kirby, Schweizer’s high school cross-country coach at Dowling Catholic. “She was always wanting to embrace it and try and process and digest all that input. She really valued what her grandfather said and her parents and siblings told her.”

Her current coach, Marc Burns, agreed with Kirby’s assessment of his top runner’s demeanor.

“She’s a great, go-with-the-flow kind of kid,” Burns said. “She doesn’t freak out if we have to change something. She’s a really respectful, thankful person, and she’s a coach’s dream because she does whatever you tell her to do and does it to a T.”

Schweizer’s first coach was her grandfather, and she still calls him before every race, which she calls a “good luck thing.” As she has matured as a runner and a person, she has relied on him less for running strategy and more for support.

“I don’t necessarily need him to give me advice anymore, but I always call him before every race for comfort anyway,” she said.

Schweizer has won her last two 5K races for Mizzou, including a personal-record time of 16:09 at the Chile Pepper Invitational on Oct. 1 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she finished 10 seconds ahead of the next runner.

She is coming off a third-place finish at last June’s track NCAA Championships, where she ran the 5K in 16:02 and was named a Division I All-American.

The way Schweizer ran the race last June impressed Kirby the most, and it showed him that a runner who he had occasionally reminded to “dial it back a little” had matured significantly since her days at Dowling Catholic.

“Towards the beginning of the race, she’s 21st, and then all of a sudden she’s 12th, and she ends up finishing third,” Kirby said. “That shows a maturity that she has to hang in there even when it seems like a race is getting away from her.”

Schweizer herself admitted that she had a tendency as a freshman to come out and immediately try to lead the pack. With the help and guidance of her coaches, though, Schweizer changed her approach to help her take advantage of her greatest asset as a runner: her kick.

As Burns described it, Schweizer’s speed in the last 1,500 meters is “as good or better than anyone else in a cross-country race.”

Schweizer said she has focused on maintaining her composure at the beginning of races.

“Staying relaxed towards the beginning of a race has been key for me,” she said. “It’s a long race, and as a freshman I would get nervous right away, and if you can’t relax, normally you get tired a lot easier. It’s nice to just go in and know that I have speed and that I can kick it at the end. It took me all of freshman year to realize that.”

Both Schweizer and Burns pointed to an increase in confidence as the biggest factor contributing to this season’s successes. While Schweizer said this confidence has come out of her having greater faith in her training and the overall process of running, Burns said the experience Schweizer gained has been instrumental in her becoming a premier national runner.

Kirby said he knew Schweizer was going to be special from her freshman year at Dowling Catholic and sees no limits as to what she can accomplish.

“Right away, everybody knew that she was going to be good,” Kirby said. “She races courageously and is very gutsy. If I’m running a race and I know she’s behind me, I’m worried, no matter what. With the way she’s built, her background and her competitive nature, who knows what she can do?”

Burns added that he feels she is just starting to reach her full potential as a runner.

“I think the sky's the limit for her,” Burns said. “We’re just scratching the surface with her, and that’s exciting.”

Burns said he is unsure if Schweizer will pursue post-collegiate running. He imagines that if she chooses to do so, she will have realistic Olympic aspirations. Right now, though, her focus is on becoming a national champion.

“I think now that she’s finished third at the NCAA Championships, she’s realized a national title is within her grasp before she graduates,” Burns said. “Beyond that, it’s qualifying for the Olympic Trials and putting yourself in a position to be in a final at an Olympic Trials.”

Burns said he believes Schweizer is a top-five cross-country runner in the nation, and Flowtrack.org ranked her 17th in preseason rankings before she had picked up two of her three career wins. But Schweizer’s primary motivation is not herself; rather, it is her commitment to her team. Her goals reflect what she wants to see for Mizzou’s cross-country program.

Schweizer hopes the team can reach Nationals and finish top three at the Southeastern Conference Championships. Burns said Schweizer hopes to be leading the program in its ascension up national rankings.

“One of the things we talked about her freshman year was building this [program] into a national power,” Burns said. We want to be a team that’s in the top 20 every year and on a good year be a top 10 team. I think it’s important to her to set that tone.”

Her coaches say she will try and set that tone the same way she did during her days in high school: leading by example.

“On a long run, she would be the one setting the pace, and people would complain, ‘OK, let’s not make this a tempo run again,’ but that was the kind of influence she had,” Kirby said. “People would gravitate towards her due to the success she had, and it fostered a great culture on our team, and I feel it does the same at Missouri.”

Whether Mizzou can establish the perennial national power program that Schweizer and Burns envision remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain — she will never back down during a race.

“[She’s] not giving up, not throttling down, nothing until she crosses the finish line,” Kirby said. “Even when she has a huge lead, she’s still thinking there’s someone behind her trying to catch her, so she fights to the bitter end. She’s always fighting.”

Edited by Peter Baugh | pbaugh@themaneater.com

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