Oct. 22, 2008
By Larry Watts
The 2008 women's cross country campaign has been in full swing since the end of August for the University of Illinois. But for junior standout Angela Bizzarri, the season is just getting started.
Bizzarri, a two-time All-American in both cross country and track, toed the line for the first time during last Saturday's Pre-Nationals at Indiana State University. She ran 13th with a very respectable time of 20:47 for her first time out while helping the Fighting Illini place fourth in the White Division.
Bizzarri and second-year head coach Jerry Rasmussen each had slightly different views on how she handled her first race.
"It was OK for a first race, I've done better" the junior from Mason, Ohio said. "I was a little reluctant to go out with the leaders because it was a pretty fast group. I'll take it out a little harder as we get into the last three meets (Big Ten Championships, Midwest Regional and Nationals). I wasn't confident I could keep up with such a fast pace, so I was a little conservative."
"That shows you what a competitive individual Angela is, she doesn't like to lose," Rasmussen says. "She really did a good job at the Pre-Nationals. When that pace and pain might have taken out some runners, she kept inching forward. I thought it was a great race for her and she'll be right there with the leaders at the Big Ten meet."
Bizzarri's success is the big reason she is getting a late start on the competition trail this fall. Her track season didn't end until late last summer because she was competing in the Olympic Trials. She clocked a school record of 15:45.78 in 5000-meter prelims and was one of only two college runners to advance to the finals, where she wound up 13th overall (16:03.99).
"She had never ran that deep into the summer before, so she needed some rest," Rasmussen says. "I still don't think she has had a long enough break, but it's time to get her back out there."
"I actually took off about two full weeks, just so I could get my body back to feeling just right," says Bizzarri, who claims to log 45-50 miles per week. "Now I think I'm in the best shape I've ever been."
According to Bizzarri, the experience at the Olympic Trials was a "real eye-opener" and she has now raised the bar even higher to the goals she wants to accomplish.
"That was a whole new experience for me, I've never faced that kind of competition before," she says of her run in Eugene, Ore. "I was pretty upset at the end of the prelims because I had fallen so far off the front pack. Then I heard I made the finals and ran a personal best, so I was pretty excited.
"But when it came to the finals, I made the mistake of sticking my nose in with the lead pack and I died. I know that first 3,000 (meters) was pretty good, but I don't even want to look at that last 2,000. It was probably my worst 2,000 ever."
"I think the finals got the best of her," Rasmussen says. "That first 3,000 was the fastest I've ever seen her run, but it did take its toll on her. She still ran one of her best times again."
After winning two state cross country titles and four state championships in the 3200 in Ohio, it didn't take Bizzarri long to adjust to the 6K course at the University of Illinois. As a freshman, she finished fifth in the Big Ten, second in the Midwest Regional and 24th (21:18) for All-America accolades at the Nationals. She followed that up last year with a third (school record 19:59) in the Big Ten Championships, another second at the Midwest Regional and 14th in the NCAA finals.
Rasmussen attributes Bizzarri's success to her preparation.
"Angela was more of a 1500 runner when she came here, good foot speed but not great," the Illini coach says. "But the first time out, she was two seconds off the school record.
"She's very determined not only in the way she handles herself when competing, but in practice and her daily life. She's a leader by example. She does all the little things to prepare herself outside of practices, like making she does extra stretching, going to the training room on a regular basis, keeping a nutritious diet and getting plenty of sleep. She is very much aware of her body."
That's a tall task considering the 5-foot-4 Bizzarri is majoring in molecular and cellular biology.
"I still don't know what (academic) direction I'm headed. All I know is I want to do something in the medical field," she says. "I do know I'll have more schooling ahead of me once I get my diploma. Between academics and athletics, I don't have a lot of free time, but that's normal for most athletes."
One direction Bizzarri knows she wants to help the Illini head is another brilliant postseason run. Last season, the squad ran fourth in the Big Ten Championships, second in the Regional and sixth in the NCAA finals, the second-highest finish in school history.
"My goal is to keep improving, as a team and individual," she says. "There are four teams in contention for the Big Ten title and we can fall anywhere between one and four. The Big Ten and Regional will serve as big building blocks for how well we do at the Nationals."