Crystal Nelson continues to grow at Iowa State

Sophomore Crystal Nelson leads the pack during practice on Tuesday, Oct. 8, at the ISU cross-country course.

Ryan Young

When Crystal Nelson started looking at what colleges she wanted to attend, Iowa State was never in the picture.

Nelson didn’t even want to leave the east coast, but when former coach Corey Ihmels convinced her to schedule a visit, everything changed.

“I got a recruiting letter in the mail, but I never thought anything of it. I’d never considered going to the Midwest from the east coast,” Nelson said. “But I talked to the coaches, and they really hooked me into the campus. Once I came I fell in love. It was an easy decision after that.”

Nelson, who came to Iowa State from Winchester, Va., was a three-time high school state champion in the 1,600-meter run, and both the indoor and outdoor 3,200-meter runs.

“It meant a lot back in high school. It gave me a lot of confidence when I started looking into colleges,” Nelson said of her high school success. “I felt like I accomplished a lot, and it made me really excited to come into college and see what I could do with a bigger field of runners.”

Nelson jumped into the program with full force. She was named to the All-Big 12 team for cross-country after her first season. Nelson also finished eighth at the Big 12 Championships and 24th at the Roy Griak Invitational that year.

“Crystal had already accomplished great things in high school, so we were really hoping that she would make a great impact right away,” ISU team captain Sam Bluske said. “We really weren’t surprised she did so well. She had already proven that she was talented, she just had to make the transition into college.”

Nelson’s first year performance didn’t just impress her teammates and coaches. It surprised her, too.

“I didn’t think I would start doing anything until my last two years, because that’s how it was in high school. I didn’t expect that much,” Nelson said. “At first I started making all of these expectations for myself, so I would hold up to those titles. But then I realized that I just need to do what I can to help the team. It doesn’t matter what people think, I just need to do what I’m capable of doing.”

But then, Nelson was blindsided. One afternoon, she received a call from a teammate asking if she had heard the news.

“I got a call from a teammate, and she broke the news to me that Coach Ihmels had left,” Nelson said. “I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it.”

Leaving Iowa State because of Ihmels’ departure was never an option for Nelson. She remembered receiving an email from ISU Athletic Director Jamie Pollard assuring the team that he would get the best coach available for the team.

That, and the support of her teammates, kept the team together.

“After that, our team told each other that we’re all just going to commit to Iowa State,” Nelson said. “We knew that if we all stayed together, nothing would change. As long as we have each other, we’d be fine.”

Then Andrea Grove-McDonough was hired as the new coach of the women’s program. The runners didn’t know what to expect coming in, but Nelson said the transition was very easy, and they have already built a great relationship with their new coach.

“Working with a new coach is not easy to do, but I think Crystal and I already have [a] really good relationship,” Grove-McDonough said. “I think we trust each other and are already on the same page. It doesn’t feel that I’ve only coached her for a few weeks; it feels like I’ve been doing it for a long time.”

Last week, Nelson competed in her first race of the season and finished third overall at the Griak, leading the No. 28 Cyclones to a fifth-place finish at one of the largest meets of the season.

“We tried to go in really understated about the meet, as usual. We didn’t want Crystal to feel any pressure going in,” Grove-McDonough said. “As a coaching staff, we felt really confident about her. We encouraged her to run with the lead pack, and thought she could be in the top-five, and she did it.”

Nelson was leading the pack by the 4-kilometer mark of the race, something that may have surprised everyone. Nelson couldn’t hold on to the lead, and came in at a very close third-place finish.

Even though Nelson didn’t win the race, her teammates still noted how much she has improved in just one year.

“It was so exciting to see her just take control of the race the way she did,” said ISU captain Maggie Gannon. “She is a totally different runner from last year. There is no question about it.”

Some may be looking ahead in Nelson’s career, trying to predict what she will accomplish while at Iowa State. However, Grove-McDonough is staying relaxed, and knows she has something special.

“I don’t know where she will get to, but that’s exciting,” Grove-McDonough said of Nelson. “She is starting to be a real believer, and starting to become one of the best in NCAA. Its an exciting time to be Crystal Nelson.”