Crystal Nelson prepares for leadership role on and off course


Freshman Crystal Nelson crosses the finish line in first place with a time of 20:12, almost nine seconds ahead of the next closest time. The women’s team finished the meet with 39 points, winning their fourth-consecutive Midwest Regional meet. They will be competing at the NCAA Championships on Nov. 23 in Terre Haute, Ind.

Kyle Heim

Success arrived early in Crystal Nelson’s cross country career at Iowa State, but the struggles at the end of her freshman year helped shape her current success.

Nelson was named Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2012, but struggled during the final weeks of the season. She finished the cross country season placing just inside the top 200 at the NCAA Championships and didn’t qualify for the NCAA Regionals in outdoor track.

Nelson was reborn in 2013. She led her team in scoring in five consecutive events to end the season, including a second-place finish at the Big 12 Championships, a first-place finish at the NCAA Midwest Regional and a 32-place finish at the NCAA Championships.

“To see her bounce back and do what she did; I think it gives a lot of kids, especially freshmen and younger athletes, a look that it takes time to build yourself into a mature athlete, and that’s what [Nelson] shows,” said ISU coach Andrea Grove-McDonough.

While Nelson is expected to be a leader for the team again this season, Grove-McDonough said she wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the other top runners on the team finish first for the Cyclones in any event.

Grove-McDonough said she expects Nelson’s leadership to expand beyond cross country this year.

“[Nelson] is learning to become a leader in other ways as well, and that’s when the full evolution of Crystal Nelson will be felt here at Iowa State,” Grove-McDonough said. “I think the best is yet to come from Crystal because she’s going to evolve as a leader away from the course.” 

Nelson will partake in her first competition of the season on Sept. 27 at the Roy Griak Invitational. The third-year junior said nerves kicked in early, but have since subsided after talking to coach Grove-McDonough.

Nelson said her coach told her to relax and that the invitational is to see where she’s at in the season.

A loaded roster this year for the Cyclones will also help Nelson relax.

“I want to feel good during a race, that’s my main goal,” Nelson said. “I just want to get out there and race again. It’s been a while since I raced so I’m just itching to go.”

Grove-McDonough is also looking forward to the season debut of her top scorer from last year.

Staying healthy is key to a successful season for Nelson as Grove-McDonough expects her to play a big role for the team at the NCAA Championships.

“She’s a big front-runner and a low-stick for us,” Grove-McDonough said. “She can be up front at any race in the country including the National Championships. That’s a big, big deal because if you’re number one and scoring in the single digits or inside the top 20, we have a huge advantage for the next four [runners] we have to score. It gives us a lot of wiggle room.”

While the upcoming meet is an opportunity for Nelson to see where she’s at competitively, the bigger picture lies on the final event of the season.

Nelson said she hopes to finish in the top 20 at the NCAA Championships and believes the team can finish in the top 10, possibly top eight at the event.