North Xtra: Hampton grad racking up honors as a runner at William & Mary

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Elaina Balouris already is considered among the nation’s distance running elite: a four-time All-American, William & Mary record holder in several events, a top-10 finish in the 10,000 meters and two top-13 finishes the past two years in the NCAA Division I cross country championships.

But according to Stephen Walsh, the director of track and field and cross country at the Williamsburg, Va., college, Balouris’ best is yet to come.

“I don’t think this is the end for her at the end of this year. She is just starting to get into being the runner I think she can be. You’re going to be seeing some big things from her over the next couple of years.”

A 2010 graduate of Hampton High School, Balouris is a senior at William & Mary who has grabbed accolades in four years running for the Tribe in the same manner a marathon runner snatches a cup of water during a race and never breaks stride.

Not one to slow her pace to acknowledge these accomplishments, her latest award is the culmination of hundreds of miles of training and a confidence and grit once that toe touches the starting line.

Balouris was recently named the 2013 Female College Athlete of the Year in the state of Virginia by the Portsmouth Sports Club and was recognized at their 68th annual Jamboree Wednesday night.

“I’m just very dedicated to the sport and to my team,” Balouris said. “When I came to William & Mary we were a pretty young team and over the years just kind of gained more experience and learned a lot more about the sports and really, really improved a lot.”

To the point where last year she was nearly unbeatable.

Among her list of achievements in 2013 were a Colonial Athletic Association athlete of the year award in both cross country and track and field, a conference cross country championship, second-place CAA finishes in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters, indoor school record in the 3,000 meters and outdoor school record in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters.

She saved her best cross country race, however, for last.

After her second-place finishes helped the Tribe to a CAA championship in track and field, Balouris qualified for her second consecutive NCAA championship in the 10,000 meters, her favorite event, and ran a 34:13.53 for a 10th-place finish and her second All-American award in that event.

Hitting the trail for cross country season this past fall, she qualified for the national championship for a second consecutive season and didn’t disappoint, using her experience from her junior year when she finished 13th to run a 20:22.7 in not-so-ideal conditions to finish 11th overall on the Indiana course. As a team, the Tribe finished 12th.

“It was freezing and really windy and muddy because it had rained all week,” Balouris said of her final cross country race. “But it was actually extremely fun. Everyone was all huddled up at the start and we were asking ourselves why we do what we do. Then we finished and we remembered why we do what we do. It’s always worth it in the end, but in the beginning it’s like, of all sports, why couldn’t I be a basketball player or something where it’s warm inside.

“I remember feeling no fear or doubt when I started the race. I had no problems going right up to the front of the pack. I’ve done it plenty of times that season and I did really well last year so that was probably the crucial thing because you wanted to get out fast to kind of avoid the mud and the trampling of everyone else. That was probably the best decision I made.”

Next to the one to actually attend William & Mary in the first place.

Before logging her first mile in Williamsburg as a freshman, Balouris had a difficult decision to make of whether to even enter the program as the Tribe changed coaching staffs and the one that recruited her was gone.

“When I chose William & Mary it wasn’t just for running and it wasn’t just for the coaches,” she said. “While it was very sad that the coach who recruited me and the one who I had a connection with left, I knew that wasn’t the only reason I was going to William & Mary. I loved the team and I loved the school. I figured everything happens for a reason so I stayed there and I think it worked out very well.”

And Walsh is happy she honored her commitment, too.

“When I started working with her I knew she was going to be good,” he said. “She has that type of attitude and demeanor that goes a long way with a Division I athlete.

“Over the past four years she has definitely grown into an elite runner. She’s gotten more confident, she’s gotten stronger. She’s really taken on a big role within the program with the team over the past four years and really is one of the reasons why we’ve gone from where we were to 12th in the country.”

Next up for Balouris is an indoor season to prepare her for her final outdoor collegiate track and field season. She has yet to qualify for indoor nationals and will try to do so in the 5,000 meters. Though she will be limiting the number of indoor races she competes in, she will be attempting to turn in one of the 16 fastest times in the event to qualify for the championships and will be looking to do so at the Iowa State Classic Feb. 14-15 in Ames, Iowa.

And for her final outdoor track season?

“Just to continue to do what she’s doing,” Walsh said. “We don’t have expectations, we have what we think will happen, where things are going. We’re not putting pressure on her. It’s more like ‘this is the training you’re doing, this is the confidence you have, these are the things you’re doing, this is the level you’re at.’

“She was 10th in the country last year in the 10K and there’s no reason she can’t go back out there and do it again.”

Rick Davis: or 412-263-3789.

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