Laura Hollander stared straight at motivation during the brief instance she lay face down on the track.
On the first lap of the 3,200-meter final at the 2011 CIF State High School Track and Field Championships, she took a hard tumble to the ground.
After pacing the field early on in the eight-lap race, Hollander’s feet got tangled with several other runners’ and she fell violently to the synthetic rubber. She lost her rhythm and momentum, but never her motivation.
Bruised and hurt, Hollander didn’t think twice about picking herself up. In fact, she sprinted to catch up to the pack and then she pulled ahead of it — only to see her comeback attempt thwarted by her rival Sarah Baxter, who had already gained an insurmountable lead on the rest of the runners.
“I got back up right away,” Hollander said. “It wasn’t even a question to me. I had never fallen down in a race before, but I always knew that if I was going to fall I would never sit out of the race. It felt like I was running the last lap of the race ever since the first 200 meters. I had scars all over me and I was just bleeding everywhere and I messed up a tendon in my leg too. The wounds and my leg were hurting with every step. I just pushed through it as best as I could and kept telling myself not to give up.”
Hollander eventually finished in 10 minutes and 26 seconds, good enough for third place in the Division I race. Baxter won the state championship in 10:12.
The 3,200-meter final was just one of many outstanding races Hollander put in throughout her senior cross country and track and field seasons. She achieved several personal-best performances in both the 1,600 and 3,200 throughout the year.
Hollander was even selected the Orange County Register’s Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year for 2012 and a second place finish in the CIF Division I state cross country championships in November earned her the same accolade for girls’ cross country athlete several months prior.
Hollander, now a freshman on the women’s cross country team at Cal Poly, points to that state championship race as a key motivator in her pursuit of becoming an elite long distance runner at the collegiate level.
“I think that race made me a lot stronger and it made me prove to myself that I was a lot stronger than I even thought I was,” Hollander said. “It was just one of those things that re-motivated me for this upcoming cross country season.”
Was she ever.
Hollander won her first two meets with Cal Poly earlier this year and shows no signs of slowing down. The Marina High School standout set a course record at the UCSB Lagoon Open, winning in a time 16:52 on the 5 kilometer course in early September. She then went on to win the Pac-12 Preview meet hosted by UCLA in 17:02 three weeks later.
Mark Conover, the director of track and field/cross country, admitted Hollander has performed well by virtue of the two meets she’s participated in, but he said Hollander’s greatest attribute lies in her desire to continually improve.
“She has potential (to be an elite runner) because she is a student of the sport,” Conover said. “She is a very coachable person; she loves learning about the sport and understands the idea of progression.”
At this point in the season, Hollander is undefeated in her collegiate cross country career, a tough feat to achieve considering she’s been pitted against 30 or more runners every meet. She points to offseason workouts and hard work put in over the summer as the catalyst to her start in 2012.
Cal Poly’s Sara Van Dyke, a former teammate at Marina, understands Hollander’s drive better than most. Despite not becoming close friends until high school, the two have known each other since their elementary school days.
“I always knew she was talented and that she had the mental and physical capacity to be truly amazing,” Van Dyke said. “Seeing what she’s done I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
Van Dyke added Hollander’s success stems from her enthusiasm for the sport of long distance running and she couldn’t be happier Hollander chose to run alongside her at Cal Poly.
“I am so excited to have her (at Cal Poly),” Van Dyke said. “I was crying when she finally signed with the school. It’s been absolutely wonderful.”
But Hollander wasn’t dead set on attending Cal Poly throughout the recruitment process. She was briefly interested in running for powerhouses Stanford and UCLA, as many other top schools took notice during her senior season in high school.
Ultimately, the Huntington Beach native chose the Central Coast after a visit to the school assured her of what team she wanted to be a part of. In fact, she didn’t even make an official visit to any other programs — she knew she wanted to be at Cal Poly from the moment she stepped on campus.
“Everything felt like a perfect fit,” Hollander said. “I loved the campus, I loved the team and the coaches were a big part of the reason I came here.”
Hollander’s next test at Cal Poly will come at the Wisconsin Invitational in Madison, Wis., a meet that will feature 49 of the top cross country programs from around the nation. While a third win in a row isn’t likely given the level of competition, there’s no doubt motivation will stare her back in the form of the most elite field of runners she has ever faced.