Two-time Olympic champion Felix Sanchez paid a visit to USC last week. The former Trojan track star from the Dominican Republic was there to make sure the 2013 USC track team understood the importance of beating cross-town rival UCLA. “It was really, really cool,” said USC freshman Natasha Strickland, a former Laguna Beach High star who ran the 1500 meters in her team’s regular season finale against the Bruins. “Being able to be a part of that [rivalry] was just a really exciting experience.”
Strickland’s first year as a two-sport division I college athlete was “really an eye-opening experience,” said the middle distance runner who also competed in cross-country for the Trojans.
The fall semester was especially tough, as the incoming freshman struggled to balance the rigors of college academics with a brutal cross-country training schedule. “It was a lot more mileage than I expected,” she said.
Having a supportive family nearby made the transition easier. “I’m so glad I picked some place close to home,” Strickland said. Still, occasionally she would wonder, “Do I have time for this? Am I fully dedicated to both?”
She battled early season injuries that had dogged her since her senior year at Laguna. “Natasha had her ups and downs during the cross-country season,” said USC’s Tom Walsh, Strickland’s coach in both cross-country and track. “But she learned a lot during a race at Riverside.”
At the Highland Invitational on the UC Riverside campus last October, Strickland finished fifth for USC and 17th overall. It was the first race where she figured among her team’s scoring five, helping the Trojans take second. “She followed the race plan exactly and stayed with a group of girls that was near the front,” said Walsh. “She held on nicely until the last 400 meters, and then she used her leg speed to finish strong and run the best cross country race of her life.”
Two weeks later at the season-ending PAC 12 championships, Strickland again finished fifth. And though the Trojans came in 10th overall, the experience gave her confidence for the future. “Now that I know how the whole system works, I think that I can definitely do better next season,” she said.
When Walsh recruited Strickland, he saw “untapped potential.” Someone “who isn’t afraid to compete against the best in the country,” he said. “The [Laguna] coaches did an excellent job of making her better, but they didn’t hammer her into the ground with over-training like some of the high school coaches do these days.”
At Laguna, Strickland understood the importance of team unity, and how building a family-like atmosphere can drive team success. Laguna sophomore Janie Crawford recently credited Strickland as one of the inspirational forces that drove the 2011 Breakers to the cross-country state finals.
During her spring break, Strickland returned to the local track where she set school records in the 1600 and 3200 to help motivate and inspire a stable of young Laguna runners starving for the kind of senior leadership that she and Marissa Merchant provided in 2011. “My advice to them was to get that team spirit again,” Strickland said. “They just need that extra encouragement from a team member.”
While Strickland and her Trojan teammates root for and encourage each other, things aren’t quite the same at USC, where every athlete is expected to be self-driven. “Definitely the team bonding is different at the collegiate level,” she said. “It’s a totally different mind set.”
By the time track season started, Strickland was beginning to feel every bit a Trojan. It didn’t take long before she made her mark as one of the team’s best at 1500 meters, when she ran a personal record 4:34.76 at the Trojan Invitational in late March.
It was the third fastest team time of the year. “She ran a confident and aggressive race, and finished with a strong kick at the end,” said Walsh, who believes Strickland has the ability to one day run 4:25 for 1500 meters.
Strickland needed to post a time of 4:30 or below at the final meet of the season against UCLA in order to qualify for the PAC 12 Championships. She came up short, but said, “I definitely see myself making it to PAC 12’s next season.”
Until then, Strickland is going to concentrate on “Making sure I’m driven both academically and athletically, and just seeing where this next year takes me.”