After deciding to take a redshirt year specifically to train, junior Rebekah Topham has her sights on becoming the next NCAA All-American for the Wichita State cross country team.
Topham came agonizingly close to a NCAA championship berth in cross country and outdoor track and field during the 2016-17 season, prompting her long-term vision to sit out a year in order to be in a better position to achieve her goals.
Now the junior from Griswold, Iowa, is in the best shape of her running career. She showed a glimpse of what might be ahead with her school-record performance in the 3,000-meter steeplechase (10 minutes, 0.59 seconds), finishing 13th in the USATF Senior Outdoor Championships in June.
“That performance has given her confidence and when you inject confidence into an athlete with the potential of Rebekah, you can’t stop them,” WSU cross country coach Kirk Hunter said. “They become unstoppable.”
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WSU opens its cross country season on Saturday at the J.K. Gold Classic held at the R.A.F.T. course in Augusta. The men’s 6,000 race begins at 8:30 a.m. with the women’s 4,000 slated for 9.
It will be the first time in almost two years Topham will compete in a Shocker uniform, something that she says didn’t bother her last season. She admits to sometimes longing to compete again, but she points out she was still able to run unattached at a handful of meets and she rather enjoyed being able to focus solely on training.
“I feel like I was able to stay motivated very easily,” Topham said. “I kept thinking if I just had this year to only focus on training and improving, then maybe I can make it to nationals and do big things the next few years.”
Topham’s savviness and knowledge when it comes to distance running is second to none at her age, Hunter said. Now that her foundation is so much stronger entering the season, Hunter believes Topham has the chance to be one of the best runners in the country.
“She doesn’t just want to be a good Division I runner, she wants to be a NCAA All-American, a champion,” Hunter said. “And she has that kind of talent.”
The return of Topham also instantly turns WSU’s women’s team into a contender in the American Athletic Conference.
After a sixth-place finish last year, Hunter figures WSU should be near the top with Topham pairing with Winny Koskei to form the conference’s best duo. Rita Schnacker, Yazmine Wright and Winnie Kibet also give the Shockers much-needed depth.
“We went through our bumps and bruises last year, but now it’s leading us to have a much better two years because of it,” Hunter said. “That’s because Rebekah didn’t just redshirt, she trained and improved and took her performances to another level. That’s how you’re supposed to do it.”
WSU’s men’s team finished fifth in the conference last season and returns a wealth of depth. Hunter counts as many as 12 runners who could be counted upon this season with returners Zack Penrod, Ben Flowers and Pedro Montoya leading the way and newcomers Clayton Duchatschek and Jed Helker also helping.