By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Sydenham High School grad Nicole Armstrong did well, accordingn to her coach, in her first season at Villanova University
To a young Nicole Armstrong, it was the Emerald City.
She had just won a gold medal at OFSAA in her first year of competition and her club coach, Steve Boyd, suggested to her that Villanova would be the kind of university she might want to think about attending one day.
Curious, Armstrong decided to find out what kind of place this was. “When I got looking into the history of it,” she said, “I thought, ‘Oh, my god, I could never go there; that’s crazy.’”
For one thing, that’s where Sheila Reid went to university. A runner from Newmarket who raced the 5,000 metres for Canada at the 2012 Olympics, she’d been a five-time national champion and 12 times an all-American at Villanova. To girls starting to get serious about competitive running, she was what Wayne Gretzky was to a generation of young hockey players. “I always followed her,” Armstrong said. “She’s a Canadian icon.”
As inspirational as Reid may have been to a young Armstrong, that iconic status was one reason why the prestigious track program of the venerable Pennsylvania college seemed an awfully long way from Sydenham High School, but then a curious thing happened: Armstrong continued to excel. Two more medals at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations track championships followed in the next year, and, slowly, the yellow brick road didn’t seem so long.
“After training and competing for a few years after Grade 9, you realize that you can do these things,” she said. “You can have this opportunity.”
Armstrong completed her first year at Villanova in the spring, and she’ll soon be heading back for her sophomore year of studying biology and competing with the varsity cross-country team.
It’s a season for which her coach, Gina Procaccio, has high hopes.
“I see a lot of upswing with her,” she said. “I think in cross country she’ll make a big jump this year and that usually leads to times dropping on the track.”
Armstrong came to Procaccio’s attention via an email she sent introducing herself. The coach receives a number of such missives but what intrigued her about Armstrong was her success both as an 800 metres runner and a cross-country competitor.
“We build our success on middle distance runners,” she said, “(so the question is) can you run a good 800 as well as cross country?” Procaccio did a little research of her own and discovered that for Armstrong, with her two OFSAA medals in the former and a national junior team title in the latter, the answer was most definitely in the affirmative. “She fit right in with what we’re looking for.”
In the greater context of a four-year intercollegiate career, perhaps that’s true but in the beginning, Armstrong said, competing in the NCAA was a little overwhelming. “You do adjust after a while,” she said. “You do realize that there are some really good runners, crazy good, in every race.
“As freshmen, you place yourself in there and see what happens and take from that for your next race. At first (it’s difficult) because you have literally no idea of what kind of calibre the girls are around you, but you quickly find out that they are very top notch. You’re not a big fish any longer. You’re back at the bottom again, and you’ve got to work your way up. It’s so competitive, in every race. You have all these girls around you that can run fast times, it’s not just one person anymore that you can run against. It’s everyone that’s there. You don’t have to worry about who (the best person) is, it’s, like, ‘OK, everyone’s going to run this fast, so I guess I have to, too.’”
Armstrong was in the Villanova lineup for five cross-country races last fall, and she raced 1,000 metres indoors and 800 and 1,500 metres outdoors. With a best time of 2 minutes 51.94 seconds in the 1,000, and 4:26.54 in the 1,500—just 28 one-hundredths of a second off her high school personal best—she had a solid freshman season, Procaccio said.
“The first year is always a big transition year,” she said. “It takes a year before they feel comfortable to race at this level. With the young kids, I’ll see them run some great training sessions but sometimes it takes a year before you start to see that in the races. If you can get them to run close to what they ran in high school, that’s considered success, and she did that. She ran well at the conference level.
“After a good summer of training she’ll be a different athlete this year. She’ll be more confident racing at this level, she’ll know what’s expected, what meets are important. Once they gain some confidence, they’re completely different runners.”
Among the things to which Armstrong had to adapt when she arrived at Villanova was a new training regime. “It wasn’t incredible crazy mileage,” she said, “it was consistently hard training, every day, with a group. Instead of going on your easy runs on your own, you’ll go on easy runs in a group, at a pace that you know is contributing. It’s not just an easy junk run.
“It was really nice. You always have someone with you, even just another person, and it kept you thinking not as much about how you’re hurting, but as you have to stay with this group, and that’s just how it is. It made training a lot more fun. Having other people around you, doing the same thing—it was just more pleasant.”
Armstrong said she learned much from her first year at Villanova, probably most importantly the understanding that if you have a bad race, you learn from it but you also have to let it go. “Otherwise,” she said, “it’s just going to be a downward spiral.
“You have to know that’s not you, and you have to move on and focus on the next race and say, ‘It’s not going to be like that, it’s going to be better.’ You can’t focus on a bad race.”
Such may have been her wont in her high school days, she said. “You always remember the really bad races, where it hurt.
“In running, there are ups and downs that you just have to deal with. The ups are great but the downs are really bad. I’m getting better.”
Armstrong, the Canadian, shared a room last year with an Irish woman, Siofra Clerigh Butner. “Those two, of all the freshmen, had the best performances,” Procaccio said, “so I think they fed well off each other.”
Armstrong said that was, indeed, the case.
“Waking up at 6 o’clock for a morning run, it’s easier when she’s there,” Armstrong said. “Sometimes, when it’s raining and cold and you don’t want to go, having someone there with you does help you get out the door.
“Once you’re out the door it’s fine,” she smiled. “It’s just getting out the door.”
Armstrong looks forward to her return.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” she said. “The running has been great. School’s hard, but it’s been comfortable and I’m not so overwhelmed that I can’t handle it.
“It’s definitely at a level where it’s challenging but it’s worth it, and you know it’s worth it, so you get through it.”