Even the top Washington state cross country runners get the occasional bout of imposter syndrome. Just ask Selena Niemi.Shortly before every race, like clockwork, the nerves resurface. Heading up …
Even the top Washington state cross country runners get the occasional bout of imposter syndrome.
Just ask Selena Niemi.
Shortly before every race, like clockwork, the nerves resurface.
Heading up to the starting mark, she considers her splits, which girls she’ll need to stay ahead of, which pack to stay with, and — if she knows the course well enough — where she’ll make those big moves.
It’s mentally exhausting, even before she steps up to the starting line.
“I think any runner thinks that: Running isn’t always a fun time. But when you cross that finish line, there’s something about your accomplishment that really just overpowers any pain that you could possibly have,” Niemi told the NVN on a recent sunny day during practice. “Knowing that you crossed the finish line, knowing that you did this ... That feeling definitely makes it worth it.”
But despite what her brain occasionally tells her, Niemi is the top runner in the Central 2B League, and she just proved that at last week’s cross country championship meet, finishing first at the 5,000-meter race with a time of 20 minutes, 47 seconds.
The Mountaineer junior is also four-for-five on finishing first at meets this year. Niemi’s name is one that’s well-known in her hometown and among her peers, and one that’s been on the rise at state and in her league.
With a work ethic that’s been unphased through the coronavirus pandemic, and hoping to garner momentum with back-to-back cross country and track and field seasons, Niemi will no doubt be a bright spot in Washington state running this upcoming fall when she returns for her senior season.
But there’s still one more hurdle during this COVID-shortened season: Saturday, March 20, Rainier will host the 2B District 4 meet on their own course, and Niemi is vying for the top spot and a chance to dip her time into sub-20-minute territory.
Last year, as a sophomore, she finished fourth at the same race with a personal best 19:37.
Sitting on a concrete parking block above the fields at Rainier Elementary School, Niemi, a 4.0 student-athlete, is concise and passionate while answering questions about what sparked her love of running.
“I love running just for fun. I just like being outside, but I started to race and do cross country because I’m a pretty competitive person and I’ve always loved sports in general,” she says plainly. “I love that running challenges me. It’s not a team sport, necessarily — it’s something different, and not everyone can do it.”
Niemi started running in seventh grade under the tutelage of boys cross country coach Rob Henry, who started Rainier’s cross country program around the turn of the century. Recounting those early days, Niemi said she had her doubts about running.
But she quickly found a love for it, as well as for basketball and track and field, her two other favorite sports.
An only child born into a family she characterizes as not very “sports-minded,” Niemi said her focus on running and academia came purely from her drive to do the best she can with the support of her family.
“They’ve never brought that type of pressure on me. It’s kind of been something I’ve brought upon myself,” she said. “Oftentimes, my parents are telling me, ‘it’s OK if you get second or third, fourth, fifth place. It’s OK not to win, it’s OK to not run your best time, it’s OK not to get an A.’”
In fall 2018, Niemi joined a tight-knit Mountaineers varsity team that went on to win the 2B conference and place third at the state meet. Niemi placed seventh individually.
The balance between school and sports came relatively naturally to her, she said, though this season has been mired with its own unique challenges.
On top of the coronavirus pandemic delaying the start of fall sports nearly five months, Niemi said she’s been dealing with Achilles tendinitis, a common and long-lasting minor injury, since the start of the season. The injury usually comes about due to consistent strain on the Achilles tendon, located on the back of the leg and foot.
While in-person schooling and sports have been cancelled for the better part of this last year, with many youths hitting the couch, Niemi’s been quite the opposite. Over the last year, she’s continued a steady running and workout regiment that doctors believe led to her injury, she said.
“It’s changed how I’ve practiced, it’s changed how I race, but I don’t want that to be an excuse,” she said. “I don’t think it’s hindered me necessarily, but I think it’s definitely had some influence on how I’ve been racing.”
This season’s girls cross country team at Rainier is also uncharacteristically small with only four girls. While their size has prevented them from scoring as a team this season, Niemi said it’s given them an opportunity to get closer to each other and be more encouraging.
“We kind of just try to support each other and be positive and get those times that you want individually,” she said.
Karissa Beckman, Rainier’s head girls cross country coach going on 12 years, said Niemi is a positive-minded athlete who will give 100 percent all the time and is at times only physically restrained by what her coaches or doctors recommend for her.
“I’ve never heard her complain,” said Beckman, Niemi’s coach and AP calculus teacher. “She’s an unselfish athlete. She’s determined to do her best, but then she’s unselfish. It’s not like, ‘oh, I beat you’ — it’s never that. It’s never that. It’s ‘I did what I could do to the best of my ability, and now I’m going to encourage you to do what you can do to the best of your ability.’”
That unflinching attitude, Beckman said, has continued well into the era of COVID.
Henry said if the state meet was held these next couple meets there’s no doubt Niemi would finish in the top five.
“She’s a rare runner,” he said.
Coaches say there’s no question Niemi has the motivation and potential to peak her senior year, especially with her work ethic.
Niemi said she’s open to competing post-high school, though she hasn’t been approached yet. Her academics come first, she said. She’s looking to attend college at a Division I school, such as Washington State University or the University of Washington.
Selena Niemi by the Numbers
• Six first-place finishes over 14 cross country 2B Central League appearances over three seasons.
• Two individual state appearances. Placed seventh her freshman year and 12th her sophomore year.
• Personal Best in 5K: 19:37.5 at 2019 1B/2B District 4 Championship meet.
• 2021 Season Best in 5K: 20:34 at Feb. 18 Onalaska league meet.
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