By Chris Mackie
The Clemmons Courier
Upon introduction, it’s difficult to envision distance runner Jennifer Nogueira as an all-star athlete.
Polite and unassuming, her relatively genteel demeanor does an excellent job of masking a competitive fire that must assuredly burn within whenever she competes. And though her sport of choice requires hours of solitary training and individual focus, her ‘team-first’ philosophy is as admirable as her talent.
But the facts give her away. Study her growing list of achievements — 15th overall at the New Balance national 5K last May, state qualifier in cross country and indoor track, West female athlete of the year — and it becomes immediately apparent that the West Forsyth High School junior has some serious skills.
“Jennifer is extremely talented and could become one of our best runners ever,” mentioned West girls cross country coach Nate Newsome after a preseason practice session. “She has already turned in the fastest 5K in school history (18:36 at the New Balance meet). And what makes that achievement even more notable is the fact that it was the first time she had ever participated in a competition of that caliber.
“We’ve had some tremendous runners here in the past (including state champions Tomika Whitten and Whitney Weber along with state runner-up Julie Smith). Jennifer has the potential to be in their class.”
That’s an amazing claim considering that one year ago Nogueira had never before competed in a cross country meet.
A multi-sport athlete who played volleyball and soccer at Clemmons Middle School, Nogueira didn’t run her first distance race until she joined the girls track team at West during the spring of her freshman year. She said that her “light bulb moment” came during a meet at Elon University that season.
“I tried out for the team wearing shoes that were too heavy and I had no technique to speak of,” she recalled with a laugh. “But at the Elon meet I ran a time of 13:56 in the 3200 meters and I was pretty proud of it. That’s when I first thought ‘yeah, maybe I can do this.”
But she quickly admitted that adjusting to the rigors of cross country the following fall was far from easy. “You basically go from running 30 minutes at (track) practice to running an hour-and-a-half at practice. That was a difficult adjustment.”
Newsome, however, saw her potential as the season wore on.
“We have one of the best cross country conferences in the state and Jennifer held her on against some very strong competition,” he said. “She was committed to improving and that’s exactly what she did.”
That improvement paid off in bittersweet fashion with an individual berth in the 4-A state race at Tanglewood Park.
“I was glad to make it (to the state race) but I was also disappointed that we didn’t qualify as a team,” she said. “I really enjoy running with all of the girls on our team and I was pretty lonely not having them out there on the course with me.”
After earning all-conference recognition in the indoor and outdoor track seasons, Nogueira said she has stepped up her training this summer in preparation for 2010 cross country. She is currently putting in 45 miles per week and is now training with the West boys team.
“It’s a little bit different,” she grinned when asked about her new ‘co-ed’ training arrangement. “With the girls, we’re all very social and we enjoy running together. The boys are more quiet and competitive. If I gain a step on one of them, they pick up the pace. But it’s still fun.”
Nogueira said she hopes to get the opportunity to run in college after her high school graduation in 2012. A straight-A student, she would like to one day become a pediatrician.
“I really enjoy math,” she concluded. “I’ve always liked to work with numbers.”
In cross country, the number she is working on is 18 minutes. She wants to become the first Titan female runner in school history to break that mark.
“Eighteen minutes is tough to crack,” Newsome admitted. “But if she avoids injury and stays focused, she can do it.
“She doesn’t look like it and she won’t admit it, but she is a fiercely competitive runner who is as determined as anyone around. When you mix those qualities with talent, you have a very special runner. And that’s what Jennifer is.”