Before starting each race, Karissa Schweizer calls her grandfather.
Years of practice led the junior to two NCAA National Championship titles and recognition as Mizzou’s first female multi-sport national champion, in track and field and cross-country, but she attributes much her success to her family’s guidance.
“My whole family has gotten me started in running, but [my grandpa] actually coached at our high school for 30 years and knew a lot about running,” Schweizer said. “He has always been someone I have looked up to and looked for advice in my running career. I still call him before every race.”
Not long ago, Karissa Schweizer was a top high school runner from Urbandale, Iowa who was graduating from Dowling Catholic High School. There, Schweizer won a 3,000-meter state title and cross-country team championships in 2010, 2011 and 2013, but she was never able to capture an individual cross-country title.
That changed this past fall when Schweizer won the NCAA Cross-Country National Championship with a time of 19:41.6. Analysts with Flo Track predicted she’d finish sixth, so her performance came as a surprise to almost everyone.
Schweizer followed that up with another national title, this time in the indoor 5K at the 2017 NCAA Track and Field Indoor National Championships, sending a message to the world that her performance was no fluke.
“She came here and wanted to be a part of something unique and special here at Mizzou, and she has definitely been a catalyst to transforming the program,” Marc Burns, Missouri cross-country and distance coach, said. “Everything she has done for this program so far has helped so much in a lot of ways. She has without a doubt transformed this whole program.”
Karissa’s championship wins created a new atmosphere for Missouri long-distance running that would attract many big-name recruits such as Austin Hindman, who is ranked No. 2 in the nation in 3,200-meter, along with other top-ranked recruits.
“The things she has done for this program so far have helped so much in a recruiting standpoint for the future of the men’s and women’s side,” Burns said. “We have had a number of people transfer this year already. The people we have access to now is a whole other level of athletes. We have always been able to get some of the better kids, but the magnitude and the depths of these kids we can get now is amazing.”
Schweizer is quickly becoming an inspiration for other cross-country and long-distance track runners at Missouri. Then-freshman Kaitlyn Fischer’s ninth-place finish in the 10K at the 2013-14 outdoor nationals had a similar impact on the recruitment process and her decision to come to Mizzou as Schweizer’s win.
“[Fischer’s ninth-place finish] helped Karissa get recruited and definitely played a role in her decision to show up and compete at this level,” Burns said. “It helped her build a team to show we are a top team.”
Schweizer said deciding to attend Mizzou was an easy choice for her.
“I knew right away I liked the team and atmosphere of [Mizzou], and I wanted to be a part of a growing program,” Schweizer said. “Along with that, the coaching staff was great. It was a tough decision [to leave home], and I was also looking at Iowa State. It was something I just wanted to do, though. I wanted to go to Columbia, and I knew it was the right choice for me.”
When Schweizer arrived at Missouri, she had an immediate impact on the team. Her freshman cross-country season, she qualified for the national meet. This earned her SEC Women’s Freshman Runner of the Year for the cross-country season.
This potential was unique to Missouri, but is not surprising, given Schweitzer’s family tree, where athletic roots run deep.
Karissa’s grandfather, Frank, started the running tradition in the Schweizer family, and it has lived on through generations. Karissa’s father, Mike, was an All-American at Minnesota State. Her siblings are not slackers, either. Her brother Ryan is currently competing for the University of Notre Dame, while her sister Kelsey is a sophomore at Dowling Catholic. Kelsey recently finished ninth in the 800 and led her 4x800 team to a first-place finish at the Drake Relays. Karissa also competed at the Drake Relays this year in the elite 1,500, which featured six Olympians this year. She finished eighth with a time of 4:18.16 but was the top collegiate female athlete of the day.
“It is really cool to come home and have everyone understanding racing and practicing and having those people to talk to and support you and they know what it means if you have a good or bad race,” Schweizer said.
Kelsey is already on pace to beat Karissa’s 800-meter best in high school. While they have not raced each other yet, Karissa said she thinks they might have to one day.
“We are a very competitive family,” Schweizer said. “I was sad when my brother broke my 1,500-meter time in middle school. My younger sister is more competitive than me, and she has more speed, so she always wants to race me in a 400 and she is definitely faster than me in a 400. I might have to race her eventually, though.”
Schweizer brings a competitive drive to every practice, along with other qualities Burns and her teammates value.
“She always has a positive attitude, and she trusts the process,” redshirt freshman Jordyn Kleve said. “She trusts to take what you get each day and train each day and all that effort will pay off in the long run.”
Sophomore Jamie Kempfer, who roomed with Schweizer for a year and trains with her occasionally, also talked about her great attitude.
“She brings positivity and that calm attitude everywhere she goes,” Kempfer said. “It was fun to room with her because of it.”
The two do not train together in workouts often, but when they do, that positivity is a real help, Kempfer said.
In addition, Schweizer’s levelheadedness is something that has helped her in races and was something Burns coached her on early in her career.
“Her freshman year, we worked on her staying relaxed and tucked in and not to necessarily lead in a race but to stay emotionally and physically relaxed,” Burns said. “That goes along with her consistency in races. Her disposition of going with the flow and being able to handle things so well. We talk about how little things will go wrong and your ability to handle things in a positive way and her being able to keep her poise and her morale in races.”
Throughout her career, Schweizer has been able to maintain consistency in her performances due to her good health and calm nature.
Both Schweizer and Burns spoke about “trusting the process,” swiping the motto from the Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid. Her process was something that has been able to develop and grow over the years.
Burns made sure to follow the process when developing Schweizer as an athlete.
“Freshman year, we were really focused and conservative during the fall,” Burns said. “She was not a really high-mileage or low-mileage person in high school. She was around 40 miles a week, so during the fall we kept it around 40-50 miles. In track, we kept the mileage around the same but focused on the mile to try and develop the speed aspect and give her the tools to do the things she needed to win a championship. Sophomore year, we did the same but moved the mileage up to 50-65 miles per week. Come junior year, we moved it to 60-75. She usually trains with 72-75 miles per week, but during championship time, we have her in the low 60s. This summer, she wants to hit 80-85, and obviously she is at a high level right now and the primary mission is to keep her healthy.”
This speed development during the beginning of her career was something Burns spoke about after her 5K victory in March and helped foster her kick at the end of races. Schweizer’s kick has proven key in multiple races, including both times she won a NCAA National Championship title, and also when she placed second in the 3K.
This long-term and intensive development helped her become a two-time national champion and be named the Mizzou Women’s Athlete of the Year. Schweizer, along with wrestler J’Den Cox, were awarded top athletes of the year at the 2017 ROARS.
“I think it really helps to see other athletes perform well, and I hope mine and J’den’s performances motivate people,” said Schweizer. “To even be mentioned alongside athletes like Cox is an honor to me.”
Looking past all of the awards and accolades that Schweizer has collected, it is the impact that she has imprinted onto the team, program and women's sports at Mizzou that will be her true legacy.
“It is truly inspirational to other girls to show that she gets it right,” Burns said. “First thing I tell everyone is, ‘Look, not everyone can be a national champion, but you can get there by doing everything right and trusting the process.’ Only they can achieve these things. It is just amazing to see that Karissa has.”
Edited by Eli Lederman | email@example.com