At last year’s NCAA District VIII cross-country meet, UCLA’s Nicole Nugent not only ran on a badly sprained ankle, but finished 23rd among about 130 runners.
Although she failed to qualify for the national championships, it was something of a miracle that she ran at all--a miracle fueled by Nugent’s determination.
“Her ankle was so puffy, so swollen up and hurting her so badly that I thought there was no way she could run,” UCLA Coach Bob Messina said. “I would have given her a chance of one in a million of running.
“I had my (alternate) girl ready just in case she didn’t run. I always thought (Nugent) was pretty tough, but when she ran on that ankle. . . .”
Nugent hurt her ankle when she stepped in a rut while training about a week before the district meet. She had to stop training, but on the morning of the meet she had the ankle taped so she could compete.
Nugent, a senior, has experienced ankle troubles before.
“I have weak ankles as a result of running,” she said. “I kept turning and turning my ankles--just bad luck, I guess.
“I have tried an ankle bandage and that didn’t work. I just do strengthening exercises and take my chances.”
This year she has been free of injury and her chances are looking good. She has been the Bruins’ best runner this year, as she was in 1990 until she sprained her ankle.
She has won three college invitational meets this season. Her best time was 17 minutes 6 seconds for a 5-K, the usual cross-country distance for college women. It came when she led the Bruins to first place in the UC Riverside Invitational.
In last week’s pre-NCAA Invitational at Arizona, she finished 17th in 18:01.1.
Her emergence as the Bruins’ top runner is somewhat surprising because she didn’t begin her college running career at UCLA. Nugent spent a year in Minnesota and became a more polished runner.
In her senior year at Torrey Pines High in Del Mar, Nugent, a four-time All-San Diego Section selection, was considering scholarship offers from UCLA and the Minnesota.
She finally chose Minnesota because “I took a trip there and loved it. Also (Minnesota Coach) Gary Wilson coaches both women’s cross-country and track and concentrates on long-distance runners. Sprinters get the scholarships at UCLA.”
Nugent, also a distance runner for the UCLA track team, said that doing her running far from home and without the pressure of competition from close rivals she had known in high school enabled her to become a better runner.
“I was caught up in who was who in high school, and there were only a few good girls,” she said. “As a Minnesota freshman I didn’t know anyone I was racing against, so I just ran, just raced. That helped my confidence.”
Her times dipped in cross-country. In track, she reduced her time in the 3,000-meter run by about 20 seconds, a strong improvement.
She said several Big Ten schools have their own golf courses that they use for cross-country meets. “They have a lot nicer cross-country courses and they cater to cross-country.”
Northern climates were good for her development as a runner, but she said she didn’t care for “eight months of winter.” When she first visited the Minnesota campus, it was an unusually warm period in February and she did not experience a true northern winter.
She transferred to UCLA and sat out her sophomore year as required by NCAA regulations. She returned to running last year and her strong performance earned her a scholarship.
Messina said he was somewhat surprised when Nugent chose Minnesota over UCLA.
“She didn’t make a bad choice,” he said. “Minnesota has a good coach and a good program. It’s a good school. But just the location of it and the winter were things she hadn’t bargained for.”
Messina said the fact that Nugent is independent has contributed to her success.
“If she really puts her mind to something, it will get done,” he said.
Messina thinks Nugent is capable of winning a national title.
“She’s running real well, but cross-country is probably the goofiest sport of all,” he said. “You can be going great in a run one week and be like dog meat the next.”
But the NCAA meet will be run at Arizona, a course which could lend itself to Nugent’s style.
He said that Arizona’s course “is challenging because it has a lot of undulating ups and downs. You have to change your rhythm, and it’s one of those courses that favor people who can handle a lot of changes.
“The race (on Nov. 25) should even out the talents of people because of the toughness of the course. And she (would) do well because of her tenacity.”
Messina said he can usually tell how well Nugent will run if she has a look on her face that is well-known to teammates and opponents alike. It is a cold, steely look.
“If you cross her or she wants something, there will be this look on her face that tells it all,” he said. “When she steps to the line in a big race, if she gets that look in a determined way, I would not want to run against her.”