Indiana University Kokomo

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KOKOMO, Ind. — Javier Vasquez makes history, as the first Indiana University Kokomo athlete to qualify for national competition.

IU Kokomo Cross Country at Grace Lancer Invitational 2013Javier Vasquez runs at the 2013 Grace Lancer Invitational.

Vasquez, 21, earned a place in the NAIA cross country meet, set for November 23 in Lawrence, Kansas, by finishing seventh in the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (KIAC) meet this weekend (November 9).

"It's hard to describe the feeling I got when I knew I was going to be the first from IU Kokomo to go to a national competition," Vasquez, a business management major, said. "I've never been first to do anything before. I'm not intimidated. I just know if I push myself as hard as I did at the conference meet, I will be happy. My goal is to run my fastest time of the season at nationals."

Coach Jason VanAlstine said sending a runner to the national championships, which includes 32 teams and 97 individuals, is a big deal for a team only in its second year.

"Qualifying at least one runner for nationals was one of our biggest goals this year," he said. "We had five runners with an outside shot. On paper, Javier was one of the best runners in the conference, from early on in the season. It all depended on how he ran on this day."

Athletic Director Brandon Podgorski is excited to send an athlete to the national meet.

"Qualifying for the national championship is a big deal, and I think Javier will represent IU Kokomo well," he said. "I was at the conference championship, and I was very impressed with the effort all our runners showed. Although only one qualified, I couldn't have been prouder with how hard our runners ran, on a muddy course. Coach VanAlstine did a good job preparing them for the biggest race of the year."

Earning a place in the NAIA meet is a great accomplishment for Vasquez, especially considering he discovered his talent by accident, and nearly walked away from it after high school.

Growing up in Frankfort, he joined the track team in sixth grade, planning to be a sprinter. His coach convinced him to run the longest event in a middle school meet, the 2,400-meter race. Not only did he win, but he set a school record in doing so, and began a successful career that continued through high school. Although he had scholarship offers from big schools, Vasquez turned them down, because he did not want to run anymore.

"I chose IU Kokomo specifically because it did not have a cross country program," he said, adding that he also wanted to be close to his mother, who has multiple sclerosis, and he wanted an IU degree.

However, during his freshman year, campus officials announced the addition of men's and women's cross country for the next school year.

"It drew me back in," he said. "I don't really like to run, but I keep doing it because I'm good at it. I like the product of the work, and I guess that's why I still run."

His strategy is not to think about a big race until the very last minute.

"I try to ignore the fact there is a large meet coming up until the last day," he said. "For every second I possibly can on the night before a race, I focus on what quote I am going to think about during the race, to get me through when I think I can't push any harder."

At the conference meet, his mother's voice pushed him forward.

"I could distinctly hear her yelling 'Vamos, Javier,' which means, 'Let's go, Javier," in my head," he said. "My mother hasn't seen me in a cross country race since high school, but that's what I repeated in my head. I'd love to have her there, but it just would take too much effort for her. She will be happy to see a recording."

Vasquez said he almost missed the nationals, as he was in ninth place with 400 meters to go. As he came around the turn, he heard his coach yelling at him that he had to pass the pack in front of him to claim the last spot on the all-conference team.

"He turned it on with a quarter mile to go," VanAlstine said. "That's a long sprint in a long race. Javier is a lot of talent, and a lot of heart."

The men's team finished 5th of 10 teams in the conference, and the women finished 8th of 11.

Many of his teammates plan to train with Vasquez as he prepares for the NAIA meet, and his teammate Jon Flory will travel with him as a training partner.

Vasquez said after the meet, he will take a few months off from training, and will start working towards the big goals he's set for his senior season.

"I have a lot of unfinished business," he said. "I want to win the conference meet next year. With the winning times this year, I think it is a highly achievable goal for me."

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.