It seems as though UC San Diego cross country standout Elena Inouye's collegiate career has come nearly full circle. After an encouraging first two seasons that saw her garner Freshman of the Year and Most Valuable Racer accolades and twice scoring at the NCAA West Regionals, Inouye's upward trajectory hit a decided plateau. Injuries and other setbacks led to a redshirt year in 2010 and, although she competed in five events, 2011 wasn't really close to what she had produced as a freshman and sophomore. But so far as a senior is 2012, it appears that Inouye has finally overcome her obstacles and is poised to finish her Triton career on a high note. "Elena is definitely a big part of this year's team, not only with her performance but the mature leadership she brings," says Head Coach Nate Garcia. "The way she has diligently stuck through the challenging parts of her career has provided a great model for our younger runners in terms of how you approach both your own goals and team goals." On the eve of the 20th annual Triton Classic, the Torrance native took time to talk about her journey and what lies ahead.
Q-How difficult has it been the last several years, either not being able to compete or competing at a level clearly below your best?
INOUYE-Racing hurts physically, but the pain goes away when you finish. Not racing hurts more because it's all mental, and it's hard to escape the doubts and negative talk inside your head. It was tough trying to make the comeback after all the health issues. Each race was tainted with a twinge of frustration because I kept comparing myself to the past.
Q-During that time, did your perception/appreciation of being a cross country athlete change?
INOUYE-It's hard to put into words, but simply I love XC.
Q-You now seem to be getting close to where you were earlier in your collegiate career. Talk about the road back and what that entailed.
INOUYE-I had to grow-up and learn to build my confidence on things other than my times and performances. I wish I had learned this earlier on in my career, but I'm grateful the health issues triggered this change.
Q-What do you enjoy the most about cross country? For you, how does it compare to track?
INOUYE- In track it's so easy to get so caught up in splits and paces that you forget to race. In cross country, you forget about the time and splits and just go beat people. Also, cross country courses are much more fun than the monotony of 25 laps around the track.
Q-Although cross country is basically an individual sport, there's definitely a team element. What kind of team tactics are involved and what is an example of how teammates might work together in a race?
INOUYE-It's so defeating to get passed by a bunch of girls in the same uniform. You just feel beaten down. Teammates work together to beat down as many girls as possible, just crush their spirits and confidence by flanking them and then surging ahead in front.
Q-If you're running, say 6K (this week's Triton Classic distance), do you have a fairly consistent strategy as to how you approach the race or is it more how things shape up as the race unfolds?
INOUYE-Race strategy varies depending on the course. I usually go into the race with a plan for the first mile and then just go with the flow from there. With our course there's a more planned approach since it's so familiar, but still you never know what's going to happen.
Q-Obviously, every cross country layout is somewhat different. What type of course do you think fits you best?
INOUYE-I think I work best on courses that punish you at the end. It's so satisfying to power past all the girls struggling in the last 1200m.
Q-Describe the UCSD home course. What are the most interesting sections and which is the most challenging for you? How does it stack up against the other courses you see during the year?
INOUYE-Best part is on "D loop." You're surrounded by bushes, running on hard-packed dirt through a couple mini-roller hills that are loads of fun. Our course has many blind spots, so it's a challenge for me not to slip into complacent mode.
Q-Junior Chia Chang has been the top finisher for the UCSD Women in each of the last nine races. What makes her so formidable and are there any intangibles she brings to the team?
INOUYE-She's confident in her abilities and doesn't flinch in the face of competition. Her fearlessness is something we could all use a little more of.
Q-Who on this year's team do you see as an up-and-coming star?
INOUYE-Ximena Cruz. She's battled injuries since day one of her freshman year, so none of us have actually seen her unleash the beast that is her. Her confident mentality towards racing is so intimidating. I'd be scared to race against her. She's been able to manage her injuries this year, so I'm hoping the true "her" is going to break out soon.
Q-You're a chemistry major with designs on going to pharmacy school. What led you to go in that direction and what do you enjoy most about chemistry?
INOUYE-Chemistry is just cool-what's there not to love about making fake gems and blowing things up? My health issues exposed me to different types of medications and I was intrigued by the way the drugs were supposed to work in my body and how they made me feel. Also my internship at a drug development company opened my eyes to the vast field of pharmaceutics. It's such an interesting field-I want to learn more!
Q-You've said that baking is one of your favorite pastimes. What are some of your "go to" dishes?
INOUYE-Butter cookies around the holidays and although they don't require an actual oven, my mint truffles seem to be well-appreciated.
Q-Word has it you also enjoy basketball and are quite a player. Any truth to that rumor?
INOUYE-There's a reason I stuck to just running...
Q-Based on what you've seen so far, what kind of predictions would you make regarding your team's performance in the Triton Classic and through the end of the year?
INOUYE-The Lancer Invitational at Cal Baptist seemed to turn things around for us. We raced more aggressively and getting that win was a great boost. Our pack is starting to run closer together, so I'm excited to see us take that momentum into the races to come.
Q-What is the single most important thing for you to accomplish this season?
INOUYE-Qualifying for Nationals. I want us to tear it up in Joplin.
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