Redshirt freshman Missa Varpness didn’t run a cross country race until she was in college. One year later, she’s one of the team’s top runners.
Varpness was a swimmer and middle-distance track runner in high school, but when head coach Gary Wilson saw her, he wanted her to run longer distances. As in, from 800 meters to 6,000.
She decided to take him up, and began preparing for the new role the summer after graduating high school.
In adjusting to the new role she may have “overran,” Wilson said, and at training camp the team’s trainers found that what started as a minor pain in her shin was actually a stress fracture.
So Varpness redshirted, though that may have happened anyway due to her lack of cross country background. It worked out well, Wilson said, because it gave her a year to learn the sport and be part of a large freshman class this season.
“She’s kind of the prototype of our team,” Wilson said. “We get the kids that aren’t necessarily high school All-Americans but the ones that will come in and work hard.”
Each year team members that aren’t suiting up go to support the team at away meets. At last year’s Penn State meet, Varpness was one of the supporters who traveled and carried the Minnesota flag.
In a meeting with Wilson after the meet, Varpness told him that the following year she had no intention of being a flag carrier. Wilson assured her that she wouldn’t be; that she’d be running instead.
“That was her showing me, ‘I want to be a runner,’” Wilson said.
The ascension from swimmer to flag bearer to cross country runner has gone surprisingly smooth. After also redshirting with the track team last spring, she has started off the fall with three top-three finishes in the Gophers’ four races, and has been one of the top three Minnesota finishers in all of them.
After getting recruited first and foremost for her track and field credentials — she won a state championship in the 800 meters and four all-state awards — she’s taken to the rigors of distance training and she said her body has adapted well.
She’s been so successful in her distance running ventures this year, one has to question if she’s become more of a cross country athlete than track.
“I don’t know anymore, honestly,” Varpness said. “I just really like running.”
She began her high school career at the 200, and gradually progressed to the 800, she said.
“It kind of makes sense that the trend for me is: the older I get, more distance is better,” she said.
Both Varpness and her parents had reservations about the University’s size, since her freshman class was about the same size as her hometown of Montevideo. But she decided that she’d rather be a “little fish in a big sea.”
“We just have such a family atmosphere that every time you need help there’s either someone that’s been through it or has advice to offer,” Varpness said.
Look no further than her times and finishes this year as evidence that the transition to the “big sea” and the big races have gone swimmingly.
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