Destination London, via Stillwater and Lithuania
This is the third in our series looking at Oklahoma’s connections to the London Olympic Games.
Yesterday, I profiled Oklahoma State’s Toni Young, who after a couple weeks of practice at the high jump, has a chance at London.
Earlier, my report on how USA Canoe Kayak has moved to the Oklahoma River, what was a dry bed no more than 10 years ago.
London 2012 is approaching. Now less than 2 months away, athletes around the world are furiously working to secure a spot in the Games. Lithuania’s Olympic team stands at 51 athletes so far. That’s less than half the number of medals the US won in the 2008 Games. Here’s how one athlete went from Europe to the US and hopes to go back again…
Squeezed between Poland and Latvia, Lithuania is a country of about 3 million and change. That’s fewer people than the state of Oklahoma, about a hundredth of the whole United States. Growing up, when Natalja Piliusina would line up at the starting line.
“You go to nationals, you have 5 or 6 girls competing, and it’s just so small, it’s hard to be excited about running when there really isn’t much going on.”
She knew what she wanted, and she was willing to go and get it. She started searching. Where could she get all that an elite athlete needed? But in the middle of that search for colleges in the United States, the dreaded cold feet.
“Actually, after I graduated from high school, I decided to stay home. So I sent an email to all the coaches saying that well sorry, but I’m not coming to states, you know.”
“And OSU, they kept recruiting me and actually they said well then just come for the visit, you know, and if you like, you like it; if you don’t, then not a big deal.”
Eventually, those feet warmed up and Natalja hopped on that plane.
“Once I got here, it’s so different from what I have home. I mean there is a huge group of people that I can train with, there is definitely great coaching staff, great facilities, and even though we don’t have a really good outdoor track, but we’re getting new for the next year. And even the races that are going, the races are so much more competitive, and it’s something that I really couldn’t have dream of having home.”
Natalja just looks like a runner. Slender body and long legs. But there’s also the brown hair tied back in a tight braid and high cheekbones. She could get your attention on the track, and not just for her speed. She first came to Oklahoma State University as an 800 meter specialist (half a mile).
Piliusina holds the school record at 2:02, and has mowed through the Big 12 at that distance. As a sophomore, her resume now expanded to include the 1500. And that’s what she’s trying to qualify for the Olympics in.
“In the beginning of the season, really, had no clue on how to run it. And now, I think I’m getting better. Like I’m getting where I am in the 800. Like I think I’m getting there in 15…I’m getting better at staying on the right pace, you know, moving up, and staying out of trouble in the race.”
There’s a reason why Natalja is here at OSU. Running is Natalja. Hobbies? Didn’t hear about any. What does she do when she’s not on the track? Gets ready to get back on the track. That kind of single minded focus has left her less than a second away from qualifying for the Olympic B standard. But it also can stifle her in a race.
“When you go there just to have fun, it’s so different. I’m not very good dealing with pressure, especially when I put it on myself. There’s no pressure coming from inside but the way I started thinking. Let’s see two years ago, I wasn’t even thinking about the Olympics because it was so far off. Now once it gets so close, I want it so bad.”
She has to hit at least 4:08.9 to have any hope of earning a trip to London. Still, as close as she is, this is a 21 year old we’re talking about. Few 21 year olds want to hear their parents brag on them.
“Mom seriously, I’m just, I’m not doing anything special I’m just I mean I’m training, I’m running and it goes well that’s true, but she’s over the top excited I guess.”
So would the sophomore be in this position if she hadn’t come to Stillwater?
“I really don’t think so. I mean I was running the same times for like 3 or 4 years ago, and I just stopped improving.”
Natalja has a couple more chances to get the standard while wearing the Oklahoma State orange and black, including later this week at the NCAA Championships. If she misses it, there’s still the European Championships closer to the Games.