Sam Chandler, Managing Editor
The pain etched across Karisa Nelson’s face as she tore down the final straightaway at the NCAA Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships turned into a broad smile the moment she crossed the finish line.
She couldn’t mask the joy welling inside her. She didn’t have to.
On March 11, Nelson fulfilled a long-sought-after dream when she won the women’s mile at the NCAA championship meet in College Station, Texas. Her personal-best time of 4 minutes, 31.24 seconds upended a loaded field and sent a shockwave through the track and field world.
Few predicted that Nelson, who finished 21st at the NCAA outdoor meet last June, would make such a drastic jump in nine months.
But she did.
In addition to bolstering her credentials and brightening the outlook of her professional athletic future , Nelson’s watershed triumph captured Samford’s first national title since ascending to Division I. The Samford Crimson caught up with Nelson earlier this week to discuss the title-clinching race and its impact on her life.
SC: At what point this indoor season did you know you were capable of contending for a title in the mile?
KN: After the first JDL meet in February … I remember I ran a 4:35 conversion. It was 4:38, but it converted to 4:35. It was the very beginning of the season, and it put me at No. 4 in the nation. I was like, “Wow, you know, I think I can be All-American this year. I think I can finish top three.” Then, (boyfriend and fellow Bulldog distance standout) Arséne (Guillorel) was like, “Karisa, you can win …” After one person says it’s possible, you kind of realize it yourself, too.
SC: You mention Arséne as someone who helped trigger your desire to one day pursue a professional running career. How big of an impact has he had on your growth as a runner?
KN: I think he’s had a huge impact, because he’s just so focused. When I started dating him, it helped me become focused. Freshman year I wasn’t focused at all, not on school, not on running. Ever since Arséne has come into my life, I’ve become a lot more focused. He’s helped me out a lot.
SC: Is there a particular workout that you completed in the leadup to nationals that increased your confidence?
KN: Honestly, all my workouts were really rough. It was more the races where my fitness showed.
SC: You won your NCAA mile preliminary heat in 4:35.31, which was the fastest mark of the opening round. How did that influence your mental approach heading into the final?
KN: Honestly, it didn’t make me think anything. It didn’t make me any more confident, because I knew that the girls behind me were just trying to qualify, so I thought they could have been holding back. Everyone else was telling me that I looked really strong and the girls behind me didn’t, so that gave me another little boost of confidence.
SC: You made your decisive move in the mile final with about half a lap to go. What do you remember about the final 15 to 20 seconds of that race?
KN: I just remember racing, honestly. It was exactly how I had dreamed of it all the weeks before. I had rehearsed it so many times in my head. It just almost came naturally. That last 50 meters it was just like I knew I had to grind to get it.
SC: In the immediate aftermath of your victory (which was streamed live on ESPN3), you looked stunned at what had transpired. How surprised were you?
KN: I was really surprised. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t think I could win. It’s just, when your dreams actually come true, it kind of blows your mind, especially when nobody else thought it could happen but you and a couple other people.”
SC: How many times have you gone back and rewatched your race video?
KN: At least five times, but I think under 10.
SC: What do you think about when you’re viewing that race? Are you analyzing, critiquing or just taking it in?
KN: I’m just kind of taking it in, because honestly there’s nothing I would do different in that race. I think I did what I was supposed to. I did everything the way I wanted to.
SC: This was the first time that you’ve medaled at NCAAs. Describe the emotion you experienced standing on the top step of the podium and hearing your name announced as the national champion.
KN: I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been on so many runs where I’ve just been thinking about that moment, of me standing on the podium and being like, “Your 2o17 National Champion, Karisa Nelson!” Every time I went on a jog, I would think about that, and it finally happened. When your dream becomes reality, it almost still feels like a dream.
SC: Likewise, your breakthrough signified the first Division I championship earned by a Samford athlete. What does that mean to you?
KN: It means a lot. Samford, they really are good to us. We don’t have a lot of fancy stuff, but we have people that care. That’s what matters more.
SC: Your victory catapulted you into the national conversation. How have you adjusted to the spotlight?
KN: Well, at first it was really weird, but now I kind of ignore it. (Samford distance) coach Pat (McGregor) definitely makes sure it doesn’t get to my head.
SC: Have you become accustomed to hearing your name preceded by the national champion title, or does it still sound surreal at times?
KN: I think I’ve gotten used to it, but I don’t think I quite understand what it means. The girls that beat me I still kind of look up to. I’m like, “Wow, they’re so fast.” Whenever I see another NCAA champion, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, that’s the NCAA champion.” Then I’m like, “Wait, I’m one too.”
SC: You raced this past weekend for the first time since your win and ran an 800-meter personal-best 2:07.14 at the Florida Relays. Did anything feel different stepping back onto the track?
KN: Not really. I felt like I could actually talk to the people I was running with, because I felt like I could kind of compete with them now. Before, whenever I would always get beat, I was like, “Oh, I can’t talk to them. They’re too fast. Now I’m like, “Oh, I can talk to them.” I think of them as friends now instead of people I’m afraid of.