It wasn’t just the NCAA DI Cross Country Championships that went down in Florida on Saturday, November 20th, 2021. 200 miles south of Tallahassee, the best of the best in Division II were also lining up to battle. The top 34 men’s and women’s teams took to Abbey Golf Course, with Adams State University coming out victorious on the women's side and Grand Valley State on the men’s.
The Oval Magazine's Ruby Wyles sat down with the women’s 2nd and 3rd place athletes, Klaudia O’Malley and Fatima Alanis.
Klaudia O’Malley, sophomore from Grand Valley State University (GVSU), finished runner up to her teammate, Hannah Becker, running 20:26 over the 6000 meter course, a time that would’ve placed her 91st in the NCAA DI Cross Country Championships. In her second appearance at the NCAA DII Cross Country Championships, and still only a sophomore, O’Malley earned her second cross country All-American honors, finishing 2nd individually and 2nd with her GVSU teammates. In 2019, O’Malley finished as the top freshman in 24th place, a performance that forecasted big things to come.
Klaudia O’Malley chatted to The Oval about her 2nd place finish and DII championship experience. O’Malley explained her path to GVSU, after initially having her sights set on DI athletics at top programs like Michigan State University (MSU), she found herself more attracted to the team culture and coaching staff at GVSU.
KO: I always wanted to run in college, but I did play basketball as well. I got a couple of letters to play basketball at some small places, but I’ve loved running since I was young and so I ultimately wanted to do that in college.
To be honest, in high school, I didn't want to go to Grand Valley, I was more looking at D1 schools like Michigan State. I took visits to both places, and what really brought me to Grand Valley was the team and the coaches. The coaches really care about you as more than a runner and I just felt like “another recruit” at MSU. I made the decision to go to Grand Valley because I thought it was the best fit for me, and it ended up being a good click right from the start.
Going into the NCAA DII Cross Country Championships, O’Malley had her eyes set on a top finish. The dynamic GVSU duo of O’Malley and Becker had already taken the regular season by storm, crossing the line together more than once. With Becker by her side, O’Malley gained the confidence to execute her coach’s race plan and fight for a top finish. She shares with The Oval her expectations going in, and the master race plan behind the GVSU 1-2 finish.
KO: My goal was to get top seven, but I knew deep, deep down I wanted to ultimately finish top five. Coming into the race, our coach told us not to get too in over our heads the first mile, to settle in, but not to lose the front pack. Our coach also said that we may have to sacrifice an individual title to go for the team title.
The plan was for us to run together and kind of work together like we had at conference and regionals. Sometimes I struggle in my races. I find myself disconnected in the middle and falling back a little bit. Staying with Hannah [Becker], my teammate, helped me to stay focused and make that move in the middle of the race. I knew that if I wanted to do well, I needed to stick next to Hannah. We help each other and it's always nice having a teammate there next to you like we do in workouts.
It was just honestly surprising how fast Hannah and I moved up to the group, from around 30th to the front pack. Running with Hannah gave me the adrenaline and confidence to be like: wow, we can actually do this! Before the race Coach Jerry [Baltes] said that he was confident that we were the best pair in DII right now, and he believed that we could do it and go 1-2. And once we were there, in the race, I started to believe that maybe we actually do this! It was a bit of a shock and it gave me a lot of momentum going up the hill at the end.
Throughout the race, Becker and O’Malley gathered momentum, moving further and further up the field. With 2000 meters to go, the front pack had thinned and O’Malley’s podium dreams were within her grasp. As the finish approached, O’Malley began to fatigue from the hot pace, but the presence of her teammate kept her pushing through to the end.
KO: Close to the last 1k, Hannah kind of took off a little bit, and I honestly didn't know if I was going to be able to finish the race or not. My arms and legs got heavier, and I just wanted to make the finish line. I passed my coach, and he's screaming: you have two minutes left, you can do this. I wouldn’t say I got a second wind, but it certainly motivated me to believe that I could do it and stick with Hannah. I knew Hannah wasn’t going to wait, and I didn't think I was going to be able to catch up with her, but I wanted me to finish second just so we could have that 1-2 punch that would be good for our team.
Fatima Alanis, Covid-freshman from Queens University, finished 3rd in an incredible time of 20:28, just two seconds off of 2nd place and six seconds off of 1st in her first appearance at NCAA Cross Country Championships. Her time of 20:28 would’ve placed 94th in the NCAA DI Championships, ahead of some of the NCAA’s biggest stars. Despite only being a freshman, Alanis has yet to let her inexperience hold her back, and the Queens standout looks to be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.
Alanis’ journey to the podium was unconventional, arriving at Queens in the Fall of 2020 from Mexico on a triathlon scholarship. With the pandemic impacting sports differently, Alanis experimented with an outdoor track season in the Spring when her triathlon season was cancelled. This “dabble” with the track proved worthwhile, with Alanis, in her first season competing for Queens University, notching up some stellar performances: 16:20 for 5000m, 34:10 for 10000m, finishing 3rd in the NCAA DII Track and Field Championships in the 10000 and 9th in the 5000. This fall season, Alanis combined the triathlon and cross country, competing in both sports at the varsity level.
FA: I actually went to the US to do triathlon; Queens offered me a scholarship for triathlon, which no other schools did. I grew up in the US but then moved back to Mexico and I wanted to go back. So when I got that opportunity, it was very obvious to me that I would take it. Last semester, our triathlon season got canceled, and I really liked running. My roommate was on the track team, and she encouraged me to do a 5000. I’ve transitioned more to running specific work since track season last semester.
Despite her lack of experience, this being Alanis’ first cross country season ever, she arrived at the championships ready to compete rather than merely participate.
FA: Honestly, even though this was my first cross country season, I did have expectations because I raced a lot of the same girls last semester. The people I’d run against in track season were around the top 5 to 10, and I had run faster than some of them, so I thought that maybe I could win or get on the podium. So my expectations were pretty high.
Perhaps unsurprising given her psychology major, Alanis appears to be really mentally strong and clued in on sports psychology tools to aid in her performance. A lesson for us all is how Alanis opened herself up to the possibility of winning, saying: “whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right.”
Having balanced two varsity sports this season, The Oval asked Alanis whether she planned to continue doing both or focus more on just running.
FA: Every time I run a race, I love running even more. Right now, I really like just running.
Get to know Klaudia and Fatima:
What are your majors in college?
KO: Exercise science, pre-occupational therapy
What were your pre-race dinners before your NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships podium finish?
KO: Every pre-race meal, every time, is Olive Garden’s chicken alfredo with salad.
FA: We went to Olive Garden, we always go there. I got the gluten free rotini with half the alfredo sauce. Then before bed I got hungry, so I had one of the Chobani Flip cups with cookie dough.
Do you have any race day superstitions or particular routines that help prepare you to race?
KO: I don’t really have any, but before I race I chew caffeine gum, and I like to sit in the Normatec boots the night before.
FA: I try to stay as calm as possible. I'm the kind of person that will feel everything: I'll feel my legs hurt a little bit and be like oh my God, my legs feel horrible. I'm gonna have a horrible race. Or, if I think I have had too much water, my stomach will hurt. I go all out with my thoughts! So pre-race, it's a lot of staying calm and reminding myself that it doesn't matter if I feel this way or if I saw that, it doesn't matter.
One thing that stands out to anyone watching the Division II and Division III Championships is the team atmosphere. With these schools often having big rosters, buses of non-running athletes road trip across the country to support their teammates, showing up on race day with wild outfits and deafening team cheers. At the most recent Division II Cross Country Championships in Florida, Adams State and Wingate University had notably large and loud cheer squads.
The Oval asked O’Malley (GVSU) and Alanis (Queens) what race day support they had and the atmosphere they experienced.
KO: My brother and sister came down from Michigan, alongside lots of parents and alumni, which was really awesome. There was so much support, and I actually heard a lot of people throughout the race.
FA: I didn’t really have anybody. I know Adams State had a huge crowd and cheer squad, but we didn’t have anything big. Some peoples’ parents went, and boyfriends, but it was very chill.
I remember running through the course and a huge Wingate crowd. They had “Wingate” painted on their bare stomachs and were yelling loudly. As I ran, I decided to just pretend that they were screaming for me and that gave me energy!
A couple of days removed from the race, The Oval asked O’Malley and Alanis for their post-race reflections after stellar performances: understandably, they were both pretty thrilled!
KO: I did not expect to run that fast or PR by that much because the course was definitely like a hard one. It was pretty awesome!
FA: I thought it was a good race, it’s one of those races where I look back and just feel fulfilled and really happy.
I think it's one of my favorite races ever, and one of the results I'm most proud of. In the past, when I’ve had a bad race, sometimes I'll give up a bit with 2k to go. In this race, I remember the last mile just telling myself “it's nationals, stick with them, stick with them!” And with 1k to go, I made a move: I really thought I would win. Even though it didn't stick, I'm really happy with the result. I really thought I gave it my all and went all out. Typical runner: the next day I was so sore and my back hurt, so I knew I’d given it my all!
Coming off the high of such incredible performances, the two podium athletes deserved to soak up the celebrations as much as possible. Hoping for some stories of wild post-race celebrations, The Oval asked O’Malley and Alanis for how they recognized their successes.
KO: After the race, we got to go to the beach with our team and just eat pizza. We all hung out as a team, celebrated and had some fun together before we had to go back to Michigan, to the cold weather.
FA: Yesterday (a week post race) I got to celebrate, it was my birthday. I got lunch with my boyfriend and I got dinner with my parents.
But when I got home to my apartment after the race, it was horrible, there were cockroaches everywhere! I found a nest of cockroaches, so that’s what I dealt with for days until I got really relaxed and got to celebrate
With plenty of eligibility remaining, O’Malley, a sophomore, and Alanis, a freshman in cross country, both have the potential to dominate Division II running for years to come. Having already accomplished big things on the national stage, The Oval was curious to hear what goals they have in mind to chase next.
KO: I'm not 100% sure what my goals are, but I do hope to win an individual national title before I leave college, and I really want to win a team cross country national title,
I'm not 100% sure where I'm going to run for grad school: I most likely would like to stay at Grand Valley because I love Jerry and the coaches, but if another opportunity opens up, I'm not gonna be afraid of going there. I'm going to keep my options open for grad school, and I’m still thinking about running pro.
FA: I'm excited to run indoors. I've never run indoor before, so I want to run a 3k and I’d love to do a 1500.
I'm graduating in three years actually, so I have three more semesters, but I would like to run in grad school. I’m still so new to running that I have no idea what could be a goal there.
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