by Rob Moseley
As the top returning runner from last year's NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, and the reigning NCAA Indoor champion after her win this winter, Laura Roesler had the weight of expectation on her shoulders entering her 800-meter final Friday at Hayward Field.
Hours before the race, Roesler experienced an upset stomach. Nerves hit her again just before the starting gun was fired.
At that point, though, Roesler could do what comes naturally — run. And run she did, surviving a rough ride and a stumble with 250 left to win Oregon's second women's individual title this week, in 2:01.22.
After the race, Roesler described feeling "a big weight off my shoulders," and "relief, then happiness, but mostly relief." Such is life for an overwhelming favorite, but Roesler was up to that task.
"It was a long time coming for me," the UO senior said. "I had it in me, so there's no reason I couldn't go out and get the 'W' today."
Roesler's win, along with points from Jenna Prandini in the 100 and Phyllis Francis in the 400, kept the UO women atop the team race for one more day, with 43 points. Texas A&M lurks just behind with 41 points, and it will be a challenge for the Ducks to hold off the Aggies.
They'll be able to do so with more performances like the win from Roesler.
Tucked within the pack for the first 600 meters, she found herself in an honest race for the rare time this season, in which competitors have sometimes been known to give her a clear path in deference to the top-ranked runner in the 800 all spring. Roesler was looking to make her move with about 250 to go, but got caught up in the traffic and stumbled.
That was bad news for the rest of the field.
"I got pretty competitive and was like, all right, play time is over," Roesler said.
Over the next several strides, Roesler powered through the final turn and opened up a commanding lead. ultimately winning by nearly two seconds.
"I was like, 'I'm going to go,'" Roesler said. "If they want to keep tripping me up, they're going to have to come with me."
None was game enough. Thus, the butterflies in Roesler's stomach were finally quieted.
Prior to the race, the UO staff was trying to spin Roesler's nerves as a positive.
"The coaches were telling me, 'That's the calm before the storm,'" she recalled. "That's your body getting ready for a big performance. They were exactly right."
Roesler's win was the highlight in a dynamite hour of action on the track for the UO women. About 20 minutes earlier, Prandini overcame a slow start to finish third in the 100. And about a half hour after Roesler's title, Francis nearly won the 400 from the eighth lane before settling for second.
Francis had faded in her preliminary Wednesday and finished third, qualifying for the final based on her time but relegated to the outer-most lane. She couldn't recall that last time she'd raced from lane eight.
"It's different, but I think I executed my plan very well," Francis said.
That plan called for her to make a push over the final 100, and Francis was in strong position coming off the final turn. She ultimately couldn't track down sophomore Courtney Okolo of Texas, the collegiate record holder who won in 50.23, with Francis second in a school record 50.59.
Francis provided eight points for the Ducks, overcoming a lapse that led to the 4x100 team missing an exchange Wednesday and not advancing to the final.
"It was hard at first, but the team is counting on us, and we had to push through it and not think about it," Francis said.
Prandini overcame what UO coach Robert Johnson called "one of her worst starts" to give the Ducks six points with her third-place finish in the 100. She edged another runner at the tape, finishing in 11.42 seconds as the field dealt with a strong headwind.
After falling to the back of the field early in the race, Prandini recovered with a powerful finish.
"That's the best part of her race is the bottom end, and she showed that today," Johnson said. "And we'll continue to tweak and fix and work on the first part."
Prandini experienced a similar start at the NCAA Indoor Championships, and didn't have time to recover at the shorter indoor distance, finishing seventh.
"I kind of just focused on my own race, and tried not to panic and stick to my race model," Prandini said. "Indoors, I didn't really do well at that in the 60. Here, I got better at it, so I was happy."
The UO women enter Saturday knowing Texas A&M lurks, but also feeling good about their chances to score in several more events, including Prandini in the 200 and the seniors Francis and Roesler in the 4x400.
"I have one more race," Roesler said. "This thing isn't over."