Oct. 11, 2007
by Jeff Smith
This season Ladia Albertson-Junkans has the opportunity to become the first three-time All-American in the history of the Minnesota women's cross country program. It would be an accomplishment that would mean a great deal to the outgoing senior from Stillwater, Minnesota, and might even bring tears to the eyes of the person who "prides herself in not being a crier."
Voted as the team's Most Valuable Runner the past two seasons, Albertson-Junkans is determined to make her final season as a Golden Gopher not only a special one for her, but for her team and head coach Gary Wilson as well.
However, this season has come with its obstacles. Albertson-Junkans entered her the campaign plagued with injuries, which left her behind on her training. She also was dealing with the loss of her former running partner and co-MVP, Emily Brown, to graduation. On a team of 48 runners, Albertson-Junkans found herself in an unfamiliar position, having to lead as a captain, but doing so from behind.
"I've learned so much this season about being able to play a different role on the team, but still being a leader," Albertson-Junkans said. "I had a strange summer of training and more setbacks than I have in the past. It's all been a learning experience."
Albertson-Junkans was sidelined with an illness and missed the season-opening Oz Memorial Run outside of Minneapolis, but fought back to race as the team's No. 4 runner at the South Dakota State Classic. She returned to the home course for the prestigious Roy Griak Invitational on Sept. 29 to place 29th overall and fourth on the team. The eighth-ranked Golden Gophers claimed the victory in the event, adding to their Griak titles from 1988 and 2000. The win also moved the Minnesota squad up to No. 4 in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association NCAA Division I poll -- its highest ranking in program history.
"I think it is awesome that the program is being respected in the polls," Albertson-Junkans said. "(Coach) Wilson has put so much heart and passion into this program. We have a great group of girls, but for me, it's rewarding to see his efforts and philosophy manifest into something that others can respect. It's probably more of a tribute to him."
When speaking with Albertson-Junkans, it's easy to feel her effects as a leader, no matter where she is currently running in the lineup. Her results on the course confirm her ability to lead, but it is her bubbly personality that exudes so much more. When asked about the season so far, she used the word "fantastically." Describing her opportunity to compete at Minnesota, she replied with "a blessing." And when asked about this particular team she responded with the words "love" and "joy."
Prior to each season it is Gopher tradition that the team boards a train for the town of Ely in the northern part of the state. The train ride not only provides some bonding time for the teammates, but it also takes them to their site of a weeklong training camp and gets the team focused for the season ahead.
"It's exciting to get back together after having gone our separate ways when school ended," she said. "We love to catch up and hear all the summer stories and laugh about them. It definitely rekindles the bond and ignites the fire against about running."
Albertson-Junkans' success in the sport has been a byproduct of her dedication and passion for running. She was voted the team's Rookie of the Year in 2004, having placed 15th at the Big Ten Championships with a 6,000-meters time of 21:46. She improved that finish to sixth place her sophomore year and helped the Gophers to a ninth-place team showing at the NCAA Championships. Individually, she placed 21st at the meet with a school-record time of 20:19, an All-America performance that came on the heels of finishing runner-up in the Midwest Region with a time of 20:52. In her junior season, she was seventh (20:53) overall at Big Tens, fifth (20:53) at the Midwest Regional and 19th (21:12) at the NCAA Championships - the third-highest NCAA individual showing in school history. She earned All-America accolades once again, helping Minnesota to an 11th-place finish at the national meet.
Much of the acclaim Albertson-Junkans has had during her tenure at Minnesota has been at the side of her former teammate Brown. An All-American, who Albertson-Junkans refers to as "incredibly insightful," Brown recently returned to campus for the Griak Invitational and was able to share some time and words with her former team.
"Emily Brown has been someone who every day has become more special to me," Albertson-Junkans said. "She is still giving her passion and love for the sport back to the team."
Without Brown, Albertson-Junkans has had to find a new approach to leading. Plagued by injuries, she found herself heading into the season having not even run six or seven miles over a two-month span. She knew that she faced an uphill battle and admits that she had to learn a new approach to running.
"You have to fight every day for where you want to be," she said. "It's been nerve-racking and I had no clue going in how this was going feel or what time I was going to make. I think I still have so much to offer to this team."
This new territory seems to be proving beneficial for Albertson-Junkans, as she has been finding new ways behind the scenes to lead. This year's team in particular is one she says does not need one central figure. With the roster nearing 50 runners, Wilson named four others as captains to go along with Albertson-Junkans.
"There are really no reigns to take on this team," she said. "Everyone is so good and wants to do their own part to make this work. We don't have the one central figure that has to expend the energy to get the team going. Everyone that has been through the program has something to offer."
And that goes for both on and off the racing surface.
The women's cross country team is one of the top programs in the country when it comes to success in the classroom, as the squad maintains a cumulative 3.6 grade point average.
"I think it reflects Wilson's philosophy and the type of kids that come into the program," Albertson-Junkans said. "He is all about fostering very whole, well-rounded individuals and he shows us there is so much more to life than running. He wants us to use and be appreciative of the talents we were blessed with."
A child psychology major, Albertson-Junkans hopes to use her talents along with her degree and people-person traits to continue serving in a leadership role. She is motivated to "making this society a little better," and sees teaching in her future.
"I have become much more interested in interacting with children and making a positive impact on this world as much as I can," she said.
In doing that, she will experience something other than running that brings her feelings of love and joy. She in turn will be a blessing for with whom she comes in contact. And without question, the journey that lay ahead for Albertson-Junkans will be approached in one and only way.