Most collegiate athletes at a big Division 1 school like the University of Colorado have full plates, with training, travel and school taking up nearly all their day. Sara Ensrud's plate is just a bit fuller than most.
The sophomore qualified for this week's 2007 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships by finishing third in the 1,500 meters at the NCAA Midwest Regional. She also placed third in the Big 12 Championships and has clocked a 1,500 meter time of 4 minutes, 19 seconds, a big personal best.
That is the fifth-fastest 1,500 in CU history, behind star runners such as Shayne Culpepper, Sara Slattery and Kara Goucher. After a slow start at CU after transferring from the University of Virginia, Ensrud, the mother of eight-month old Ciara and a near-4.0 student, is poised to break out onto the national stage at NCAAs.
The championships are set for Wednesday through Saturday at Sacramento State. Ensrud's preliminary round of the 1,500 is Thursday evening, and if she makes it through, she will be racing live on national television Saturday morning.
"This will be my first national competition," Ensrud said in an interview last week. "It has been kind of hard for me, because my goals have changed so drastically this season. I am excited and a little scared at the same time. I just want to keep a calm mind and do what I can."
Helping calm her will be fellow Buff Brent Vaughn, one of the top collegiate distance runners in the nation. Along with eight-month old Ciara, the three form a team that has been a boon to all who know them.
"We've had a of support from our family and our all teammates, and that helps a lot," said Vaughn. "It is just a matter of getting into the routine. We couldn't be happier, or ask for a better baby. She has been a lot of fun."
Added Vaughn, who will run his 5,000 meter prelim Wednesday, "We are two lucky people to have the coaches we do. (Head coach) Mark (Wetmore) and (assistant coach) Jay Johnson have done an incredible job helping us out."
Ensrud grew up in the small western Nebraska town of Gering. She was an all-state runner all four years of high school and won the Nebraska class B 1,600 meter state title her senior year. She initially competed for the University of Virginia before transferring to Colorado. After a slow start at CU — her first track race was a 5:08 mile indoors — she has made remarkable progress since her daughter was born.
"It has definitely been hard, and so rewarding," Ensrud said. "And it does give me an advantage; whether the workout is good or bad, when you come home it doesn't matter, because it is time to feed Ciara or bathe her. What I did on the track is left on the track."
Vaughn has also been running well since the birth of Ciara in September. He clocked a personal best 5,000 meters of 13:30.1 last month, and broke his own meet record in winning the 5,000 meters at regionals. Vaughn was fourth in the 2005 NCAA 5000, and 10th last year.
"I am fit this year, and want to make it through the prelim as easily as possible and go for it in the final," he said. "Mark is really good about peaking his athletes at the right time, and I think he has done that this year. I am in pr shape; I just have to go out and show it." In addition to their fast times, Ensrud, Vaughn and Ciara have an uplifting effect on seemingly all who come in contact with the young family.
"For me, it has been combination of inspiring and an education at the same time," said Johnson, in his fifth year as CU's middle distance coach. "You see this beautiful child and these super-positive athletes, and they really are an inspiration. They love one another, love their child, and are really kind to each other."
Added Colorado teammate Greg Castro, "Sara and Brent are great parents, and with everything they are juggling, it is awesome to see two people doing so well. They are the same happy people they have always been, and life has gotten better for them since Ciara came."