To Wright and Windsor, the team is a family. They all have each other’s backs.
After both the men and women swept this past weekend’s Big West Conference Championship, it’s no secret the Cal Poly cross-country team is talented and competitive. For many students, the idea of balancing academics and NCAA athletics can be daunting, but sophomores Ashely Windsor and Mary Jo Wright instead feel blessed and take all challenges in stride.
Wright, who majors in animal science, grew up on a ranch in Deeth, Nev., 50 miles outside of Elko. Cal Poly fulfilled both her passions: running and animals.
Windsor, who majors in psychology, hails from Langley, British Columbia and is a passionate writer as well as runner.
“Coming to Cal Poly was really quite the trip,” Windsor said. “I knew that it’s a world away, and I had to be pretty independent, but I also needed to be around people who would make me feel welcome being so far from home, that I could go to at anytime.”
The weather was initially a major challenge for Windsor, who has since adjusted and embraced the change in climate.
“I’ll never forget the first week of training,” she said. “It was ridiculously hot for me, and I sat there and wondered how I was going to make it through for the coming years here.”
Wright’s adjustment at Cal Poly was also significant, but in a different facet. After being home schooled from kindergarden through high school, Wright said the transition was a culture shock, including huge changes in living situation and the surrounding community. Despite the initial challenges, cross-country alleviated some of the difficulty.
“Being on the team means you automatically have friends and a family,” Wright said. “You get to be around people who have things in common with you, and you have the chance to get out away from school with people you enjoy being around.”
Although sophomores academically, both Windsor and Wright are considered freshmen as athletes after redshirting last year due to injury. Windsor suffered from an iliotibial (IT) band injury, which often plagues runner, and requires time to heal. Wright dealt with a stress fracture in her leg, which occurred during her final race in high school.
“It’s been an amazing process to see them grow through injuries and become better from them,” cross-country assistant coach Kelly Bean said. “They were able to stay strong mentally as well, which is a very important component when injured. It’s very easy to get discouraged and not have a positive outlook, but they both saw through it, bought into the big picture, and knew they’d be able to get back out there if they took the proper time to recover.”
For Wright, the thrill of racing is one of her primary motivators.
“We put all that effort into workouts, which is fun, but ultimately we train to race, and the feeling of accomplishment afterwards is pretty addicting,” Wright said.
Windsor also feels the rush of competition but finds a sense of serenity in running, too.
“It’s like chasing the runner’s high, but it’s also a great way to sort out my thoughts and relax,” Windsor said. “It releases stress and lets you be yourself. Just the adrenaline of standing on the line and knowing you’re about to push yourself and give it your all, it’s a thrill. I keep going because it helps me relax but also gets me excited.”
Despite having practice three to four hours per day, seven days per week, cross-country has actually helped Windsor and Wright balance their studies.
“Because our time is so limited, we are much more productive,” Windsor said. “Running helps keep you responsible, organized and on track.”
“After running so much, going to school is a nice change,” Wright said. “And after studying for hours, getting to go out for a run is such a relief. It’s a really good balance, being able to have a break from one by doing the other.”
For both athletes, family provides tremendous support and encouragement throughout the physically and mentally demanding lifestyle of running.
“The support of my family is really amazing,” Wright said. “My dad texts me almost every day asking how my run was. My parents are my biggest fans. They love coming to races and being a part of it and love to hear and learn more about the sport.”
“My family pushes me to do my best,” Windsor said. “They provide the kind of support that makes it possible to keep pushing your body to the limit.”
Windsor understands that although teammates are family, competing against them is part of the sport — it’s nothing personal.
“It’s important to remember that at the end of the day you want the best for the whole team,” Windsor said. “You want to do your personal best too, everyone is doing the best they can on the day, everyone is really competitive.”
The drive and dedication of both Wright and Windsor do not go unnoticed by the rest of the team.
“Mary Jo and Ashley are both driven to succeed,” Bean said. “What attracted us to them in the recruiting process was their desire to compete. Their demeanor at practice and during competition has set the standard for the rest of the team. Their teammates know that they will bring their best effort, which motivates the rest of them to perform well.”
The team continues to train for this upcoming weekend’s regional meet in Sacramento, which will determine their eligibility for nationals the following weekend in Terre Haute, Ind.
“At this point, with three weeks left in the season, it’s do or die,” Windsor said. “It’s time to buckle down and push yourself. You either perform on the day, or you don’t.”
As far as progress goes, both athletes have seen personal growth in themselves this past year.
“Mentally, I’m a lot stronger and more determined in my workouts,” Windsor said. “I’m not going to quit on it. My legs are going to give out before my heart does.”
“I am a lot smarter and more dedicated,” Wright said. “I can do this and enjoy it and not stress about it. I have an even amount of school, social life and running..”
Beyond their careers in college, both Wright and Windsor plan to keep running as a major part of their lives.
“Running is a lifestyle,” Windsor said. “I don’t know what I would do without it. It is such a big part of our lives. I want to be one of those people you see running in their old age.”