This summer, Elizabeth Nist couldn’t even run a lap around the track. Now she’s getting her fourth state championship ring.
The Auburn High School girls' cross country team won its fourth straight state championship Saturday, Nov. 14 at the Jesse Owens Memorial Park in Oakville, Alabama. They were led in part by Nist, a senior at Auburn High and four-year veteran of the program.
Nist contracted COVID-19 in April. She had the textbook symptoms: she was coughing, her body ached and she lost her senses of taste and smell. She recovered from most of these in a few weeks but was left with a lingering high heart rate that kept her from doing any sort of training safely.
“I tried to train, but I just kept noticing that there was something off, like my chest was hurting and I felt like my heart was going to beat out my chest,” Nist said. “After a few weeks of trying to get back into my schedule, the doctors finally were like, ‘You kinda just have to stop.’”
So she stopped. Nist didn’t run for a while, at least not very far, or else her heart rate would get up to 210 again. Meanwhile, her team was still training, and she said she would show up and cheer them on.
Come August, she said she could start training easy again — keeping her heart rate under 205 — and then back to running with the team.
Nist didn’t run the first race of the year, and head coach Olivia Tofani, who teaches at Auburn Junior High, said other key runners were missing too, which led to some nervousness for the team.
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“That first race, we were missing one of our lead runners, and you could just see it on the girls’ faces that first race,” Tofani said. “They’re young, they're a little bit more inexperienced, they were nervous — you could see it through their body language.”
There was pressure on the team from the start of the season. To uphold a dynasty, as Tofani said, is no small task. AHS’ girls’ cross country team had won the state championship the previous three years, and half of their top runners graduated last year, five of which committed to run cross country at a Division I school, she said.
“There was definitely more pressure this year, just to reestablish what our program was,” Tofani said. “I think there was certainly a lot of people that had counted us out because we had lost so many of our top runners. So, I definitely put some pressure on myself of … wanting to live up to the legacy that Auburn High has.”
But the runners on the team consistently outperformed expectations.
They also dealt with challenges throughout the year. There weren’t the same opportunities there were in years past to build team chemistry; after practice, they’d put their masks back on and leave immediately instead of hanging out with their teammates. They ran in pairs rather than as a group, and they’d often miss two or three runners to quarantine on any given race day. Part of that, though, strengthened the team mentality, that what each runner does can directly affect how the team performs.
“They realized, in the sport, as much as it is an individual sport, that their decisions and their actions can affect the other nine runners on their team,” Tofani said. “They had such good perspective because they … have that internal drive and they knew what the end goal was.”
The team wasn’t missing any runners when the state championship came around, Tofani said, including Nist, who had only run three races prior to the state meet.
“Going into this weekend, I felt the pressure,” Tofani said. “I was confident in their ability and knowing, based on their times, based on what I see every day at practice, I knew they had the ability to win and they really, this Saturday, stepped up even more than I had anticipated.”
AHS ended up winning the state championship by 56 points, a substantial margin in a cross country race, Tofani said. Nist came in sixth for the Tigers, which she also did a year earlier, pushing her team over the edge as the tiebreaking runner against Mountain Brook in 2019.
Tofani said she’s proud of her runners, but it’s important that the team doesn’t become solely focused on winning.
“To get them to be successful for that duration, for that four-year stretch, a lot of that comes down to them still enjoying the sport, enjoying racing,” Tofani said. “Having confidence in one area of your life really ends up impacting those other areas.”
For Nist, she’s got her three state championship rings sitting in a little case on her dresser, and there’s about to be a fourth.
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