Last week, senior Christine Merrill of the UC San Diego Track & Field team was named the California Collegiate Athletic Association's (CCAA) Female Athlete of the Year for 2009-10. Although the speedy Bakersfield native owns school records in the 100 and 400 hurdles, and won the 2009 NCAA Division II Championship and placed third in the latter race this year, her legacy was cemented in one signature afternoon last May. On her home track, Merrill reached the top of the podium five times on the final day of the conference championship meet, capturing individual titles in the 100 hurdles, 400 hurdles and 400 meters, as well as two relay golds -- running the opening leg on the Tritons' victorious 4x100 squad and anchoring the 4x400 quartet. UCSD head coach Darcy Ahner has enjoyed the ride with her team-oriented star. "Christine saw herself as a small-town girl with some athleticism, but I don't think she had any idea it would blossom the way it did," says Ahner. "I knew she had everything it takes and it was just fun to watch her career unfold. She's truly everything you could ask for in an athlete -- the definition of coachable." With graduation looming, the Sixth College mechanical engineering major took time to look back on her incredible career at UCSD.
Q: In the last two weeks, you competed in four events at the NCAA Championships, were named one of UCSD's 16 Athletes of the Year, earned recognition as the CCAA's Female Athlete of the Year, took your final exams and will graduate from UC San Diego. Has the magnitude of the end of your senior year set in yet?
MERRILL: Whoa! It looks crazy on paper! I've been fortunate to have amazing coaches, teammates, friends, and family, otherwise I probably wouldn't have made it through.
Q: How does it feel to be named the outstanding athlete in the conference from among the many great competitors in all different sports?
MERRILL: Wow. I feel absolutely honored because there are SO many great athletes in our conference -- so many awesome athletes at UCSD alone. I'm still really excited about it.
Q: In a year in which you achieved so much, what stands out the most?
MERRILL: My last race on the UCSD track... the 4x400 meter relay. Leon (Baham) gave an awesome pep talk to our relay team when Kelly Fogarty asked how to run a 400. "No girls, you sprint a 200... and then you sprint a 200". I got really pumped up after Kelly, Steph (LeFever), and Boo (Kathleen Hitchens) beasted everyone... and knew that I had to get first. We won with a season PR by three seconds.
Q: Despite running a personal best and breaking your own UCSD record, you were unable to repeat as NCAA champion the 400 hurdles. Was that a disappointment?
MERRILL: I thrive on getting first, but my third place at this year's NCAA Championships was definitely not a disappointment. I was able to crash my previous school record!
Q: Can you take us through that race, from how you were feeling going in, to your thoughts immediately following?
MERRILL: A few nights before, at the Nationals Banquet, a Hall of Fame inductee said "If faced with doubt or aggression, always choose aggression." That really spoke to me because that's one of my biggest strengths. So right before my race I just told myself "choose aggression." Once the gun went off I transformed into zone-out mode. Immediately afterwards, I knew I had run my fastest race all year, so I was just eager to find out exactly how fast it was.
Q: This year's NCAA Championships were quite an ordeal with a cross country trip, some crazy weather and unexpected schedule changes. How did you deal with all of those elements and did any of them affect your performance?
MERRILL: Cross country trip... just excessively hydrate and get electrolytes. Crazy weather... we had experience with that at Chico last year at conference, so it was nothing new. Unexpected schedule change... I love how a wrench was thrown into the mix, it weeds out the weak ones.
Q: Outside of your own competitions, what was your favorite part of the NCAA meet?
MERRILL: This one's tough. I loved the whole experience really. Traveling with the team, our fancy hotel, sweet tea, the first day of warm-up at the track, where you see/judge all the athletes for the first time, getting free gear with NCAA Nationals embroidery on it, the Athlete Banquet the night before competitions start, bib numbers with our last names on it, gawking at all the brick buildings, hearing a play-by-play account of how Nick Howe won the javelin title, cheering for all the other CCAA teams, Kelly's triple All-American, the list goes on and on...
Why? Because my love for track goes beyond winning, it's half due to the incredible, inspirational people on the team.
Q: What are the major things you've learned from your four years on the UCSD Track & Field team?
MERRILL: How to compete mentally. Also, it helps when you hum "and another one bites the dust" whenever you pass someone.
Q: Do you still plan to compete in any form after you graduate?
MERRILL: I'm competing in the National Championships for Sri Lanka in August, but after that I plan to be done with my track career.
Q: What are your post-graduate career plans?
MERRILL: Get a mechanical engineering job with a company that challenges me, where I enjoy the people I work with, and that allows me to give back to the community in some way.
Q: When you arrived at UCSD, did you have any sense that your track & field career would be as amazing as it's become? What were the key moments or factors that turned you into the athlete you are now?
MERRILL: I really had no idea. I was a pretty average high school track & field athlete, a walk-on to the UCSD team and had major ACL reconstructive surgery my first year. I've built off of the legacy the alumni left before me. Each year they'd set the bar higher and higher, it made me set my goals higher and higher.
Q: Do you see any future Christine Merrill's on the current UCSD squad?
MERRILL: Most definitely. It could be anyone, there's so much untapped potential on the team. Maybe Justin Rovin. He's my adopted brother since we look so much alike.
Q: For the last two years, you've been selected as one of UCSD's Athletes of the Year, in 2009-10 one of just 16 from 23 sports. Standing on the stage amongst the best of your peers, what were your thoughts?
MERRILL: Most of the other athletes on stage I had read about on the athletics website or in the newspaper, so I knew that they had accomplished so much and were extremely talented. So standing up there with them, I was very proud to be a part of UCSD and honored in such a way.
Q: Outside of your sport, what will be your favorite memory of UCSD?
MERRILL: Pulling two all-nighters for my Mechanical Engineering Senior Design Project. My lab partner, Wade, and I worked for almost 48 hours straight (something I never thought was physically possible for me) to complete our universal valve test fixture before our flight up to San Jose to present it at our client's headquarters. Both Wade and I were delirious the whole day of the presentation, but the project was a success! It was absolutely worth it.
Oh, and also living with my three best friends last year (Leah, Amanda, and Nubia!) at our apartment, which we deemed "cutehouse."
Q: Five years from now, what are three things you will hope to have accomplished?
MERRILL: The splits (because you can never be too flexible), singing in tune while playing the piano (because the only time I sing right now is when I'm in the car by myself), beating Dief (teammate Bryan Dieffenbach) at "dieffs" -- because any guy who names an ab workout after himself needs to be beat.
Q: What advice would you have for next year's incoming class of UCSD student-athletes?
MERRILL: Live it, love it.
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