Victory Lap

Student-athlete runs her final race for Roosevelt

by JOHN JARAMILLO

Student-athlete Gina Narcisi and head cross country and track and field coach Aaron King.

The marathon poses a unique challenge for runners who embark on it.

With 26.2 miles of terrain between the start and finish lines, it presents a lengthy and rigorous journey preceded by an even lengthier, and oftentimes more rigorous, window of training.

On any day, a marathon is a difficult race.

On Saturday, May 25, 2019, in Gulf Shores, Alabama, the marathon was more difficult than one can imagine.

Despite a 6 a.m. Central start time, the marathon event of the 2019 NAIA Outdoor Track & Field National Championships could not evade temperatures that began the day in the high 70s and reached as high as 92 degrees. The humidity, surpassing 90% at the start, felt weighty and oppressive.

The field in the women’s marathon featured 51 qualifiers, and 39 student-athletes finished the daunting task.

One of those finishers was Gina Narcisi, a graduate student-athlete running her final intercollegiate race for Roosevelt University.

Narcisi already knew something about challenges before the marathon. A year prior, Narcisi didn’t know if she would ever compete as a collegian again. She missed nearly the entire 2017 cross country season and all of the spring 2018 track campaign due to a broken foot.

“On the second day of preseason [in 2017] I landed weirdly during some drills,” Narcisi said. “After a month or so of writing it off as a bad ankle sprain and not seeing any improvement, I found out that I actually cracked a bone in my foot. It required me to be in a boot for eight weeks and have tons of physical therapy after. It was definitely frustrating at first to not know what was wrong and not see any improvements, and then it became frustrating not to have that senior season I trained all summer for.”

“Breaking her foot was a low point in Gina’s career,” said Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach Aaron King, a two-time Roosevelt alum and a national cross country qualifier himself. “Gina came into the 2017 cross country season fit and ready to take on her senior season, and a misstep on a mini-hurdle ended her season during the first week of scheduled practices.

“Breaking her foot was a low point in Gina’s career … At the time, we thought this was the worst thing to ever happen to her.”

— Aaron King
Roosevelt Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach

“At the time, we thought this was the worst thing to ever happen to her.”

Though the injury cost her that senior campaign, it also caused a mental shift for Narcisi.

“While I was very frustrated for a long time, that time off definitely helped me realize how before I was just going through the motions of things and see just how much I enjoyed running again,” she admitted. “It really motivated me to do what I had to do to be able to have this outlet back.”

“Looking at how she ended the 2018–19 season, the lessons and strength gained with overcoming the injury really took Gina to the next level as she battled through the adversity,” said King.

“At cross country nationals, Gina ran the whole race smiling. Her smile showed that she truly loves the sport. The smile showed that she was going to enjoy every minute on the big stage.”

— Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach Aaron King

Roosevelt student-athlete Gina Narcisi runs on the track.

Narcisi worked her way back, rehabilitating and getting healthy before considering her next steps in 2018–19.

That included where she would continue her education. Narcisi graduated from Roosevelt in May 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. She considered graduate programs at a variety of colleges across the Chicagoland area.

After she was granted one more year of athletic eligibility by the NAIA due to her medical hardship, and considering the caliber of education she was familiar with at Roosevelt, she decided to return to RU and pursue a master’s degree in secondary teacher education.

“Looking at how she ended the 2018–19 season, the lessons and strength gained with overcoming the injury really took Gina to the next level as she battled through the adversity.”

— Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach Aaron King

“I knew I liked being here and being on the team, while factors such as the classes fitting my schedule well and allowing for an easy commute were beneficial,” Narcisi said. “When weighing what was best for me in considering all the factors, this stood at the top.”

Now Narcisi turned her attention to 2018–19, and what could have been a year of just graduate studies turned out to be an athletic campaign for the ages.

“I knew if I was coming back for a fifth year and doing this all again that I would have to seriously give it my all,” Narcisi said. “I had such a mental shift to be the best I could be since I had one last opportunity to do so. I kept setting myself up to do that by training all summer, staying on top of physical therapy, working hard when needed, and doing the little things to stay healthy outside of practices and races. Coach King definitely let me know what I was capable of, but it wasn’t until workouts and races started coming together that I really gained confidence and momentum in what I was doing that I started to believe it.

“The races that I had fun in were the races I found the most success and really surprised myself,” Narcisi continued. “My goal was just to come back and qualify for the marathon, but as the cross season progressed I knew I had a shot at being competitive in the conference and the same thing happened in track. I trusted the training, did what I had to do, and that helped me gather all these little successes each week that propelled me into the bigger ones.”

Narcisi started off the fall with exceptionalism in cross country. From the outset it looked like Narcisi had fresh legs, ready to save her best racing for last. She also looked happy as she sped by spectators, flashing an ear-to-ear smile that would become a photographic trademark of her final go-around.

She built up speed and seemed to pass every test put in front of her each weekend. Entering the CCAC Cross Country Championship in Bettendorf, Iowa, on November 3, Narcisi was primed for a big showing.

The CCAC championship turned out to be her best performance to date, as she finished 13th overall with a PR of 19 minutes, 32.8 seconds in the 5-kilometer race to qualify for her first NAIA cross country championship. Despite the PR, Narcisi had mixed feelings as she had not finished as she had hoped. She still ran well enough to garner just the second national bid for a member of the Roosevelt women’s cross country team, joining her former teammate Alena Pacheco, who achieved the feat in 2015. Narcisi also became just the fourth cross country national qualifier in school history, joining Pacheco, King and Alex Agafonov, with the latter two earning men’s cross country national bids in 2012.

“Qualifying for nationals in cross country was not something we sought to do or I ever really thought I would happen,” Narcisi said. “I didn’t do as well as I anticipated at conference, so when I qualified I was just happy to have another race to end the season on a better note.”

Narcisi saved her best for the toughest competition she would face that fall.

Just a few weeks later, Narcisi crushed her previous best by running an 18:51 race on her biggest stage, against 341 of the nation’s top distance runners.

“Cross nationals was such a fun experience, and I ran my fastest ever because I had no expectations,” she said. “I was just excited to be there representing RU.”

“At cross country nationals, Gina ran the whole race smiling,” King said. “Her smile showed that she truly loves the sport. The smile showed that she was going to enjoy every minute on the big stage. Gina ended up dropping 40 seconds off her best time and posting the best finish at the NAIA cross country national championships by any Laker.”

Student-athlete Gina Narcisi wearing her racing bib.

With Narcisi in her best racing shape as a collegian, King knew the time was ripe for her to strike for a history-making bid. Two weeks after running her best 5K ever at the NAIA championships, Narcisi traveled to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to attempt to become the first Roosevelt student-athlete to qualify for NAIA championships in both cross country and track and field.

By running in the Q Elite Half Marathon, Narcisi could qualify to run the marathon at the NAIA Outdoor Track and Field National Championships if her time was at or under the standard set by the NAIA.

Narcisi left no doubt. She won the Q Elite Half, running a 1:27.19 to beat the runner-up by a minute and hit the A standard for the marathon.

“The first time I qualified for the half was on a freezing, icy day that got off to a rough start,” Narcisi said.

King admitted that the rough beginning was due to a time mix-up that resulted in Narcisi arriving just in time for the start of the 13.1-mile race.

“Gina and I looked at each other with concern, but she got on her racing shoes and headed to the line,” King said. “After the race Gina said, ‘Being late did not give me any time to be nervous.’ An event like that really shows how mentally tough Gina has become.”

“Gina and I looked at each other with concern, but she got on her racing shoes and headed to the line. After the race Gina said, ‘Being late did not give me any time to be nervous.’ An event like that really shows how mentally tough Gina has become.”

-Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach Aaron King

“Coach Aaron told me to be patient and just see what would happen, and by mile eight I was confident I could win the race because I was feeling good,” Narcisi said. “I’ve been trying to qualify in this event for years, so to do it in this way was very satisfying. Then to come back in the spring and run the same time on a hilly course [in a different half] was really reassuring that my fitness was there despite having time off from the event.”

“Her initial national qualifying run at the Q Elite Half Marathon is a great story that will be passed down throughout Roosevelt running athletes,” King said.

The native of Chicago Heights continued to star on the track, shining during the indoor and outdoor campaigns and even taking up runner-up honors in the 5K at the 2019 CCAC Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Joliet in early May due to Narcisi being “the smarter racer” throughout the year, per King. She ran a variety of track events all while training for the most grueling race of her life.

“Her initial national qualifying run at the Q Elite Half Marathon is a great story that will be passed down throughout Roosevelt running athletes.”

– Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach Aaron King

Student-athlete Gina Narcisi smiles and gives the thumbs up.

Now to the marathon. From the start it was apparent that a record-setting time would not be likely for the competitors in the midst of the heat and humidity.

“I knew the weather would present a challenge but I didn’t realize how much of a challenge it would bring,” Narcisi said. “I’ve never competed in a marathon prior to this, so that paired with the weather made me very unsure of what would come.”

“By mile 20, the race began to thin out. Runners dropping out left and right. Gina began to also feel the heat and show signs of fatigue and mental strain.”

— Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach Aaron King

“The race plan was to go out conservatively in order to combat the heat,” King recalled. “Gina, once again, ran a perfect start and really listened to her body by going out nice and easy. By mile 20, the race began to thin out. Runners dropping out left and right. Gina began to also feel the heat and show signs of fatigue and mental strain.”

“It was like a switch was flipped and my mental strength wavered,” Narcisi said.

“We both knew the remaining 4 miles were the toughest miles Gina was ever going to face. From then on, Gina got her mind back in check.”

— Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach Aaron King

“As she ran by me at mile 22, she was stressed and admitted that she needed to walk,” King said. “I told her to relax, focus, finish. We both knew the remaining 4 miles were the toughest miles Gina was ever going to face. From then on, Gina got her mind back in check.”

While other runners had to drop out, Narcisi would not quit. She felt the temperature like everyone else, yet she knew she had one more race to finish with Roosevelt’s green and white on her racing gear. As King and her family, including former Roosevelt women’s soccer student-athlete Maria Narcisi, provided support throughout the course, Gina paced herself and balanced a walk-jog approach in order to achieve one final athletic goal as a Laker: to finish.

“At this point of the race the heat was overwhelming, and it didn’t help seeing many people dropping out or being taken away by medical teams,” she said. “I thought I was going to have to drop out until I finally came to terms with myself that it was okay to walk every so often. My time wouldn’t reflect my ability, but it was the safe thing to do. I remember telling Coach King that I was just trying to finish it for myself no matter how it got done. I can’t thank him and my family enough for prepping and being out on the course to provide me hydration and aid throughout.”

Finish, she did. In her first marathon, the first time a Roosevelt Laker has competed in the 26.2-mile event in an intercollegiate setting, Narcisi ran a 3:35.16 to finish 19th overall against peers from all across the country.

“I was able to really run the last mile and finishing was a feeling unlike any other race,” Narcisi recalled. “I never wanted water as much as I did after that race, and I kept joking that if it was 10 degrees below zero, I would’ve definitely have won.

“The best part of the race was just being able to represent RU at such a big event,” she continued. “It was cool to hear spectators mention Roosevelt or read my jersey aloud as I passed and just have Roosevelt be on the finishers list at the national level. I hope it sets the tone for future Lakers that there’s no reason why they can’t do the same.”

“Finishing a race where a quarter of the athletes dropped out because of the heat and humidity simply proves that Gina was a force to be reckoned with all season.”

— Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach Aaron King

“This was such a huge feat for Gina,” King said. “Finishing a race where a quarter of the athletes dropped out because of the heat and humidity simply proves that Gina was a force to be reckoned with all season. Gina was big time on the marquee stages all year.”

That grueling race and gritty finish ended what should be considered one of the grandest careers for a Roosevelt student-athlete in not only cross country and track, but in any sport. Narcisi capped her intercollegiate efforts as a two-time national qualifier, a holder of multiple records, an All-CCAC finisher and on track (pun intended) to be a holder of two Roosevelt degrees.

“The marathon was definitely an unforgettable experience,” Narcisi said. “When I reflect on qualifying now, it means so much more to me than it probably did in that moment. I was significantly slower in all my events prior to this season and not as mentally strong, so it just alludes to how much can be accomplished if you are dedicated, have some perseverance, and have the support to get you where you want to be.”

“Gina has set the bar for all athletes that come onboard the running team and into the athletic department … The training had always been there. Her new mental approach and capacity pushed her to the next level.”

— Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach Aaron King

“Gina has set the bar for all athletes that come onboard the running team and into the athletic department,” King said. “She is a true example of what going all in on something can do. That is the main reason she was so successful this season. The training had always been there. Her new mental approach and capacity pushed her to the next level.”

Narcisi noted why running at Roosevelt helped her journey toward these accomplishments.

“The dedication Roosevelt has to seeing their student-athletes excel is something I’m greatly appreciative of, even more so after this season,” Narcisi said. “From the administration, to the coaches, to the trainers, each contributes so much to benefit the student if they are willing to take advantage of it.

“I don’t know if I would’ve found these meaningful relationships and experiences elsewhere, and I am grateful I had another year of it.”

Gina Narcisi’s day on May 25, 2019 was a symbolic microcosm of her athletic career as a Roosevelt Laker.

Even with the odds seemingly stacked against her, nothing could stop her from finishing what she started.

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