Nov. 17, 2006
When most college freshmen are still learning their way around town and the ins and outs of their course-work, Wisconsin's Hanna Grinaker has been busy propelling the Badgers women's cross country team back among the nation's elite and earning her place as one of the best runners in the country.
"Really I just wanted to come in and do the best that I could for this team because I know we're trying to keep building. I just took everything that coach told us so far, and he has so much confidence in all of us. I didn't have big expectations; I just wanted to come in and see what I could do."
A Big Ten-record six women's squads will also be competing in NCAA Championships on Monday (Nov. 20), matching the conference's best total from 2002 with Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota joining Wisconsin in Terre Haute, Ind. After claiming their the highest ever rating under third-year head coach Jim Stintzi, the nation's eighth-ranked Badgers have their eyes set on an NCAA podium finish after Grinaker led the squad to a second-place finish at the 2006 Great Lakes Regional.
The fleet-footed freshman has led the way for UW all season. Later named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Grinaker got things rolling for Wisconsin at the Big Ten Championships on Oct. 29 at Indiana. Finishing third and leading the Badgers to a second-place team finish - Wisconsin's highest since 2000. Her time of 20:39 was the fastest among all freshman competitors and her third-place finish was the highest for a freshman since Michigan State's Danette Doetzel claimed the individual title in 2004.
"There were so many great athletes, so being able just to compete in Big Tens is a dream come true," she said. "I've always pictured myself running in the Big Ten championships so to finally be able to do it was awesome. For our team to come out second was a nice bonus."
Grinaker paced the team for the fifth meet this season in the regional event, clocking in at 21:01 while out-running all of the other rookies in the 6K field again.
Despite all of her individual success, Grinaker is eager to credit her coaches and teammates for her accomplishments. Coming from a small school to collegiate-level running has given her an unprecedented support system.
"I never really got to run with anybody in high school because my team was small, so I never really had any training partners," Grinaker said. "Coming here, being able to run with someone every day has been the biggest complement to what I've been able to do here. Without my teammates I wouldn't be where I am. Period."
Her biggest role model has been Katrina Rundhaug, the Badgers' top runner is all of their 2005 events. Grinaker says the senior co-captain's leadership and work ethic have taught her a "different level of working hard," and in many ways, the inspiration has been mutual. Rundhaug bumped up her Big Ten finish two spots in one of the most talent-laden conference championships races in years.
Said Grinaker, "I've definitely been looking up to everyone on the team - not just [Katrina]. Everyone brings something new to the table, and that's what makes our team so great. I'm learning something every day."
Wisconsin's first female freshman to claim the annual laurels since 1998, Grinaker was also named Big Ten Runner of the Week on Sept. 19 after claiming the individual title in her collegiate debut at the Eastern Illinois Panther Invitational. While the transition to college competition can take many athletes a year or two to get just right, Grinaker made her move look seamless.
"That definitely wasn't a goal coming in; I just wanted to come in and do my best for the team," she said. "It was something in the back of my mind coming into this season, but you never know. There are so many spectacular athletes in the Big Ten, so it's a huge honor."
The rookie harrier's quick success should have been no surprise for anyone considering Grinaker's high school cross country resume, one that made her one of the best prospects in the nations.
"I had inkling that Hanna would be pretty good," he said before the Big Ten meet. "At this point in the season, she's very, very good... She definitely has confidence. She is ahead of her years in terms of confidence and maturity when it comes to racing skill."
After finishing claiming Class AA runner-up honors two years in a row, Grinaker nailed the race of her life in the 2005 Foot Locker Midwest Regional. After clocking in at 14:18 - 18 seconds shy of Elizabeth Yetzer's title-winning 4k time - at state, Grinaker powered her way to a 17:30 performance in the 5k to advance to the Footlocker Cross Country Championships in San Diego.
The Detroit Lakes, Minn., product wasn't even expected to qualify for the national race, but she again shocked the field with the seventh-fastest finish in the country at 17:46 - all despite battling iron deficiency earlier in the fall.
Growing up as the niece of Mary Grinaker, a former UW track assistant coach and a Big Ten track champion in 1978-79, the current Badger star has always been full of Big Ten dreams. "She's very modest, so I don't know a whole lot about it," added Grinaker. "But I feel like I find out something new about it every day from the people that are around here."
Even though her aunt's accomplishments and the history of the Wisconsin program were huge ties for Grinaker, all she needed was one college visit to know it was the right choice.
"I fell in love with the team and the way Coach Stintzi coaches," she said. "Obviously the tradition that Wisconsin has was huge, but that is a minor factor compared to what I saw in the team in coach."
She canceled the rest of her college visits and has been leading the Badgers to a familiar national prominence ever since.
Former coach Peter Tegen molded Wisconsin women's cross country into a national force. The program claimed 15 Big Ten championships and two NCAA championships. The Badgers have since hovered around the middle of the pack, including eighth- and sixth-place finishes in Stintzi's first two seasons.
With three more seasons following Grinaker's stride, Stintzi expects the women's team to raise its national status to the level set the by men's squad, the defending NCAA and eight-time Big Ten champions - starting with its second straight appearance in Monday's national meet.
"[The men's] team sort of sets the standards and we want to try and get to the point where we're a nationally competitive team," Stintzi said. "I think that the women feel that they need to sort of step up to the plate and become a national power. We've been a national power here before, and I think that we have the capability to be again.
"I think if Hanna runs an intelligent race and she puts herself in the position she needs to early can still have the best race that she's run yet this year."