Just 200 meters separated Gina Sereno from history.
The Michigan senior had already won the 10,000 meter race Friday at the Big Ten Championships. And if she could pull away from a pack of seven on the final straightaway of the 5,000 meter race, she would become just the third woman in history to claim conference titles in both races in consecutive years.
“I said, ‘if you want to go, you gotta go now’,” Sereno said. “And I just gave it everything I got.”
It turns out that was enough. Sereno surged into the lead out of the final turn, and outdueled Indiana’s Katherine Receveur to the finish to win the race with a time of 16:23.24, just five-hundredths of a second ahead of her Hoosier rival.
“I had no idea (that I won), honestly,” Sereno said. “I made the first move, and she made the last move. It’s hard to tell because I was just looking forward, and I don’t know if she let up or I surged.”
Sereno’s victory Sunday closely mirrored her 10,000 meter win from two days earlier. She stayed solidly in the lead pack for the majority of the race, and maintained her position at the front as the pace began to drop with a mile to go. She then made her move with half a lap left — a move she would repeat from the same spot Sunday — and outkicked Penn State’s Jillian Hunsberger and Indiana’s Margaret Allen to win with a time of 33:53.02 and a two-second margin of victory.
“The last 200 meters I never really know what to expect,” Sereno said. “I always tell myself to just push harder and harder and harder until there’s nothing physically left in the tank.”
Sereno led for most of the 5,000 meters, but surrendered the lead to Penn State’s Tessa Barrett, and later Receveur, late in the race. Despite her opponent’s surge, and possible fatigue from her efforts Friday, she maintained her composure and place in the pack, and was able to position herself for the home stretch.
“I just tell myself to keep my eyes on the back of the jersey in front of me and not let the distance increase between myself and that jersey,” she said. “I kind of imagine there’s a string between my forehead and the back of someone else. It’s about keeping a level head and maintaining focus.”
Not only did Sereno become the first woman since Michigan’s Mindy Rowand in 1989 and 1990 to win the 10,000 and 5,000 two straight years, her distance sweep powered the Michigan women’s track and field team to a fifth-place overall finish at the Big Ten Championships, hosted by Penn State this weekend. The Wolverines’ score of 79 points was 54 points behind the champion, Purdue.
Michigan’s performance was most impressive when considering it came into the meet fairly shorthanded, with injuries sapping the team of its usual depth. Perhaps most notably, junior Erin Finn — the runner-up in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA Indoor Championships earlier this year — did not compete due to injury.
“We didn’t have what we normally have, but the kids at the top did very well,” said Michigan coach James Henry. “That small group of young ladies held it down.”
That group — consisting of Sereno, juniors Claire Kieffer-Wright, Aaron Howell and Jaimie Phelan — contributed 50 points to the Wolverines’ total with five individual victories.
Kieffer-Wright took home the high jump title Saturday in a down-to-the-wire battle, needing all three attempts to clear the barrier on three of her final four jumps. She set a personal best with her winning height of 1.84 meters (6.075 feet) — the first time she has surpassed six feet since high school.
In the heptathlon, Howell didn’t place first in any individual event, but claimed the title with a score of 5,359, winning by 36 points over Maryland’s Peyton Wade. Howell sealed her victory with a third-place finish in the final event, the 800 meters, while also placing second in the javelin.
Phelan continued Michigan’s distance dominance Sunday with her title in the 1,500 meters. After a conservatively-paced first three laps — no lap was run faster than 70 seconds — Phelan took off, running her final lap in 62 seconds to finish with a time of 4:21.17, just over half a second ahead of Penn State’s Danae Rivers. Just an hour after her victory, Phelan capped off her meet with a third-place finish in the 800 meters, just ahead of junior Jamie Morrissey in fifth.
The 3,000 meter steeplechase also proved fruitful for the Wolverines. Juniors Claire Borchers and Sarah Zieve both put points on the board for Michigan with their second and fourth-place finishes, respectively.
Also scoring for the Wolverines at the meet were freshman Courtney Jacobsen and junior Sarah Uhlian, with their eighth-place finishes in the hammer throw and pole vault, respectively, and junior Haley Meier, who placed fifth in the 1,500.
Michigan’s five individual conference champions tied for the second-most in program history. But now, the Wolverines will seek to get healthy as the NCAA Preliminary and National meets approach, and they will hope for a total team effort at full strength.