May 2, 2014
By Christopher Walsh
The statement was more than fitting, especially since she really didn't plan any of this and her parents weren't going to push her in this direction.
But one day Katelyn Greenleaf came home and announced that she was going to run the mile in a track and field meet at her elementary school. Even though she was really into gymnastics at the time, no one was really surprised.
"It kind of runs in the family," she said, as her father and grandfather were both distance runners.
Yet no one could have seen where it would all lead: the University of Alabama.
"In middle school and early high school I thought to myself, 'I don't want to run in college. After my senior year of high school I'm done running'," said the Crimson Tide sophomore who won 18 state medals and helped Northside Christian in St. Petersburg to numerous Florida championships.
But by her sophomore year Greenleaf was warming to the idea of continuing to compete, going from being "iffy" to being courted by some of the top programs in the nation. Among those interested in the four-time St. Petersburg Times Runner of the Year, and two-time Tampa Times Track and Field Athlete of the Year was the new coaching staff at the Capstone, headed by Dan Waters.
"When I came on my visit I just loved it here," Greenleaf said. "This was definitely my favorite school."
That's the thing about distance running and cross country in particular, the competitors never quite know where it may take them.
Even though the course is always precisely planned out, the route is usually different and scenic, or the track located someplace new and interesting in an unfamiliar locale. That may be what Greenleaf likes the most about the sport, in addition to her high level of success.
"I really improved," she said about her first year with the Crimson Tide, when she landed on the Southeastern Conference's All-Freshman Team, and was second-team All-SEC. "I was light years faster than I was in high school. I got a lot more accolades than I thought. I didn't know I would improve as much as I did."
Actually, that may have just been the beginning. During this second year Greenleaf has been setting personal bests on a regular basis, and not just in one event. For example, at the recent Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif., she posted a time of 34:38.59 in the 10,000-meter run, the sixth-best showing in Crimson Tide history. Her previous best was 34:52.13.
Two weekends before that, at the Crimson Tide Invitational, she impressively topped her personal record (PR) in the 5,000 by 16 seconds with a time of 16:47.88.
"It was a really good PR because I hadn't broken 17 minutes before that," said Greenleaf, who thought the difference occurred in middle of the race, when she kept up with the lead pack of runners longer. "That's kind of what I struggled with, especially this past indoor (season), in the middle of the race around the 3K of my mind going, 'Oh, man, this pace is too fast, I need to slow it down or else I'm going to, like, die'. Just a little bit longer."
But Alabama distance coach Adam Tribble believes her performance had been in the works for some time as things have been coming together for Greenleaf, especially during this outdoor season. "She can run a lot faster than that," he said about her time in the 5,000, which both believe is her best event, although the coach could have been talking about the others as well.
Generally speaking, races 400 meters and less are considered sprints, those in the 800- to 3,000-meter range mid-distance, and anything beyond that long distance. While it's fairly common for athletes to have success in both mid- and long-distance racing, many specialize.
"For track, I like running the 1,500, but I'm probably better at the 5,000 ... actually, I'm definitely better at the 5K and then 10K," she said. "I don't have what my coach calls the wheels for the 1,500 because you have to have the faster-twitch muscles to kick it at the end. I'm more of an endurance, grind-it-out kind of runner."
Regardless, she's considered versatile and has no qualms about doing the 10,000 meters or being the anchor of the distance medley relay - whatever the team needs. It's an especially important trait on a team that doesn't have any distance runners who are older, as everyone is either a sophomore or freshman.
"When we got here pretty much our whole track team started from scratch," Tribble explained. "Her class, that sophomore class, they're the leaders. Like last year, her and Meropi (Panagiotou) and Yanique (Malcolm), they had to lead as freshmen. They didn't have anyone to follow, so without a doubt she's a leader.
"She's not a real 'rah-rah' vocal type, but she leads by example, of taking care of her business each and every day. She's made herself very dependable, and she's definitely someone you can count on, whether she runs a PR or not, to run her absolute best."
Although Greenleaf admits that she doesn't know any better because there was never a veteran to show her the ropes at this level, everyone coming in together at the same time only brought them closer because it was all new for everyone, and they could therefore relate that way.
So being named an Academic All-American for cross country last fall was "great," but Greenleaf described sharing the experience with Panagiotou, who was also honored by the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, as "really awesome."
Unlike her high school years, Greenleaf already knows that when she graduates (she's switched from pre-physical therapy to a nutrition major) running will still be a part of her life, although how remains to be seen. Doing well in an SEC meet is a goal, as is qualifying for a national championship, and turning pro might be a possibility, but she has plenty of time to mull that over.
For now she's focused on doing what it takes to improve, and will simply see where it takes her.
"I do want to run a marathon eventually one day," she said. "I want to try a marathon and want to try doing a triathlon one time."