Oct. 12, 2012
by Paige Stenberg
DALLAS (SMU) - "Everything here is great, minus the beach," said freshman Ashlee Powers of her new home on the Hilltop. A California girl at heart, Powers was ready to venture away from home, her family, and long-time coach Bill Sumner to begin her college career as an SMU Mustang. The school and its southern hospitality is what brought one of the top freshman runners in the nation to Dallas.
Powers first visited SMU during fall break of her senior year at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, Calif. She fell in love with the campus, its red brick architecture, and the diverse student population. Encouragement from her family and Sumner helped Powers make the decision to accept a position on SMU's team, which she feels has proven to be the best move of her career.
The start of the SMU season has been very successful this far for Powers. After two challenging first races and a little encouragement from SMU head coach Cathy Casey, Powers finished second at the Ken Garland Invitational hosted by North Texas, leading the Mustangs to a win.
The freshman then set a new goal for herself, to break 16:50 in the 5k. An article back in California written before this year's success at SMU described her goals as "lofty."
"I was offended," said Powers, "I know not to get carried away and get cocky. Where I am is not easy but I love it. If you have the heart, the talent, and the strength then you're good to go and I feel like I have that. In the end it's what is in the heart."
Powers proved to the cross country world that she was serious at the Notre Dame Invitational in South Bend, Ind., where she finished the 5k in 16:49.
"I think, `oh it was just a good race,'" Powers said of her achievement. "It doesn't hit me yet because in high school I was good but not great and now I'm beating the people who were beating me."
Running is a part of the Powers' family lifestyle. Her parents met while they both competed on their high school team, and instilled a love of the sport within Ashlee and her two sisters.
"It's a family thing," Powers said joyously reminiscing on the support she has always received in the sport she loves. The family moved to Newport Beach for the running program when Ashlee was in the seventh grade. At this time, she began working with Coach Sumner. Everyone back home pairs the two together. They share the same birthday and dedication to running.
"He is like a dad to me," said Powers, "I've known him for so long and he knows how I work." Whether it is a quick pre-race chat on the phone with last minute pointers or post-race advice for the next competition, Sumner is her main influence and biggest inspiration.
"I do it because I want to make him proud," Powers said. "My accomplishments reflect him."
It was difficult for Ashlee to discuss her favorite non-running activities because in her own words, "I live my life for my sport." Powers does however have a place in her heart for California. One of her favorite things to do is attend the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, which takes place every September. She enjoys this social outing for the competition, music, and the beautiful California sunshine. Other days, Powers can be found hiking, hanging out with her family, going to the beach, and taking day trips to Los Angeles with friends.
"A week or two [away from training] is all I need," said Powers, like any dedicated athlete. "I don't know what to do with myself after." Ashlee's favorite place to run is along the Laguna Canyon. The challenging hills and scenic ocean views force Powers to focus and remain in the zone when facing distractions. Although there are no beaches in Texas, Ashlee enjoys the team runs around White Rock Lake, which provides a little piece of home and reminder of what she loves.
Although Powers misses her home in California, she says it is easier to focus being in Texas. At SMU, cross country is a year-round sport. In the fall the team competes outdoors, winter break is used for training but does include a little time off, indoor competitions begin in January, then back to outdoor running in the spring. Although Powers is not accustomed to a year-round cycle, she believes in being a 24/7 athlete and completely dedicates herself to running.
For Powers, the hardest part in being a student-athlete is the student part. Not that she has any problems with the schoolwork, but while sitting in a classroom Powers is continuously thinking about what she could be doing to improve her times. She is still getting used to the intensity that comes along with NCAA Division I athletics. For example, Ashlee's cross training regime now includes swimming and lifting weights in addition to just running everyday, to ensure she remains healthy and sound.
"You have to know how to work your mind," explained Powers while discussing the mental component of racing. She says the toughest part of running is the mental energy that can make or break a runner. "I am very mentally strong but I can ruin my race completely with my mind." As a freshman in high school, Powers struggled with the psychological element and a stress fracture during her sophomore year made her think the year was over. She battled with her brain and the mental exhaustion it caused resulted in her coming back stronger than ever.
"I taught myself to stay focused and keep calm," Powers said. "Freaking out is the worst possible thing in a race and I feel I experienced everything as an athlete." One's mind, and thus pre-race ceremonies, can change an entire race.
"It's a runner thing," Powers said. "We have our rituals because it is a mind game." The night before a race, Powers must eat plain corn pasta with quinoa, a gluten free grain. Sleeping in her warm-up gear has become a common ritual as with morning workouts. The only thing harder than keeping herself focused during a race is waking up at the crack of dawn. Ashlee does not like to talk much before a race. She likes to bang out 10 to 20 pushups, occasionally listen to worship music such as Hillsong United, and sometimes call Sumner from back home just to hear his voice which reassures her everything will be okay. In the last few minutes before the race begins, Ashlee must crumple her number, throw on her jersey, fold her hands, and bow her head for prayer, showing her signature braid.
With her success thus far and incredible level of motivation, it is easy to think Powers' future goals will become reality.
"I want to go to the Olympics, but not jump to it," Powers said. "I am here to run. Also for academics and I love learning, but my priorities are a little different." Powers wants to qualify for the Olympic trials in 2016 and compete in the 2020 Olympic Games. She feels studying communications at SMU will prepare her the best for the Olympics, getting sponsored and for coaching afterwards.
"There is that saying `if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life,'" Powers said. "I am pretty confident that if I stay healthy I can pursue my goals. It's the best feeling to wake up and know I am working doing my favorite thing. Say it, claim it. I want to live my dream and I am going to."