BY DENNIS SILVA II | DENSILVA2@GMAIL.COM
The last year has been quite a ride for Cinco Ranch senior runner Heidi Nielson.
A femur injury sidelined her high school cross country season after an exhausting summer representing Team USA at the Pan Am U20 Championships. Then the novel coronavirus COVID-19 abruptly shortened her track season in mid-March. The global pandemic also hindered Nielson’s recruiting, as she was unable to make visits to colleges or compete in significant events.
“It really sucked,” Nielson said. “The cross country season, I get hurt, and it was like, ‘Welp, there it goes.’ I was still hyped, I was really ready for the track season, and then everything gets shut down. I was so sad. Even now, I’m still, like, ugh.”
Still, it all worked out. A star distance runner since her eye-opening freshman season for the Cougars, Nielson verbally committed to continue her athletic career at Arkansas in an Instagram pledge on Sept. 9.
“It has such an incredible program and I already know a lot of the girls on the team,” said Nielson, who joins nine other Razorback recruits from Texas. “I love the coach; he’s great. I was able to go and visit the campus, walk around, and it just felt right. I had lots of good options, but it felt like the right place. It made sense.”
Nielson will compete in cross country and run track at Arkansas, which won the 2019 national championship in women’s cross country. Last year, she established a strong relationship with Arkansas women’s cross country and track and field coach Lance Harter when she competed at the USATF Cross Country championships in February 2019.
After visiting the campus last weekend, Nielson picked Arkansas over other prominent schools that expressed significant interest, like Georgia, Oklahoma State, Wake Forest, Virginia, UCLA, Oregon and Alabama, among others.
“He’s been recruiting me this whole time, and he’s been optimistic,” Nielson said of Harter. “He’s made a lot of other athletes really good and really wanted me to be a part of their team. I want to be on a team where we have a chance to win national titles and Arkansas is one of those teams.”
Despite what was essentially a lost junior season, Nielson had enough impressive credentials her first two years of high school to get the attention of colleges.
As a freshman, she placed fourth at the state cross country meet and was an all-state selection in cross country and track, qualifying for the Foot Locker National Championships that summer.
After the high school cross country season her sophomore year, Nielson competed at the USATF Cross Country Championships, qualifying for Team USA and the World Cross Championships in an international event. That spring of 2019, she qualified in the 1600 and 3200 runs at the state track and field meet.
Between the high school and national events, Nielson learned how to compete in small and large races. Where the smaller local races demand knowing when to go for the lead and break out from the pack, the bigger races require a runner to stay with the pack and sustain footing, not getting behind.
“Those experiences helped a lot and definitely made me a better runner,” Nielson said of the Foot Locker, USATF and Team USA events. “They shaped me and taught me lessons, both as a runner and as a person. They kept me going to keep getting better. They were big in helping me get recruited in light of the junior track season getting canceled.”
Even last season, after a washed cross country season, Nielson showed signs of recovering well from the femur injury. She performed admirably at the Team Cross Country Nationals South regional, and right before the high school track and field season was canceled, she ran the fastest 1600-meter time in the nation with a 4-minute, 47.90-second mark at the Alamo City Mile and Steeple.
Nielson has methodically trained since then, tending to a strained quad injury around competitions at the AAU Junior Olympics Games and the Music City Distance Carnival, running times of 4:36.09 and 4:29.33, respectively.
“It’s been crazy, very up and down,” said Nielson, who added her quad feels good. “I took some time off once things got canceled, then started running again, then hurt myself and strained my quad, I took another break. Now I’m running again. It’s been weird. Now I’m doing more track races, so I went to Nashville to run in a distance race. Since that ended, I’ve had fewer workouts to slow down and really focus on cross country with some base training and workouts with the team.”
Nielson said she feels she’s “learned how to race” ever since that freshman year when she was pretty much relying on just her natural, God-given talent.
“Not that I was dumb my freshman year, but the more you do it, the better you get at it,” she said. “I understand my body more, I understand when to push. I have better instincts, as far as the times of when to take the lead and when not to take the lead.”
Nielson is excited to return to cross country. Though track is her favorite of the two sports, ever the competitor, she is hungry to redeem herself on the course after missing out last year.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “Like they say, ‘last one, best one,’ right? I’m a senior. I want no regrets. Let’s just have a great season. Not get injured, though! I just want to have fun with these girls one last time and have a good time and learn as much as I can before I go to college.”