Weronika Pyzik set modest goals for herself as she prepared for the 2017 NCAA cross country championship race.
The San Francisco junior wanted to place in the top 40 to become an all-American, or at the very least, finish better then she did in 2016 when she was 87th.
Her coach, Helen Lehman-Winters, had higher expectations for her budding star. Much higher.
“I remember she said to me she’d like to finish somewhere in the top 70 and in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘Well, yeah, I hope you can finish in the top 70 otherwise we’re going to be in trouble,’” Lehman-Winters said. “I was like ‘Weronika, you’re a top-five kid.’”
As it turned out, Lehman-Winters was spot on. Pyzik placed fifth last season to lead the Dons to a second-place team finish.
Lehman-Winters and Pyzik will attempt to improve on both of those outcomes Saturday morning in Madison, Wis., during the women’ 6,000-meter national championship race on the Thomas Zimmer Championship Course.
This year, however, they’ll be doing so for a different national title contender after Lehman-Winters was hired last summer as the Ducks’ associate head coach and Pyzik followed her to Eugene along with junior Isabelle Brauer, who was 15th last season for San Francisco.
“NCAAs last year, big surprise,” said Pyzik, a 22-year-old from Bilgoraj, Poland. “I was not thinking about finishing so high at all. I know Helen had confidence in me, but I never had confidence in myself.
“My goal was to be all-American, and Helen was like ‘Think whatever you want to think, but go with the front pack.’ I listened to her and I finished fifth.”
Adhering to Lehman-Winter’s advice has paid off for Pyzik throughout her career, which is why she made the difficult decision to leave the Bay Area last summer and head north, breaking a lease agreement, changing her major and abandoning all of the familiar surroundings that had become a source of comfort in her life so far from home.
“I knew that transferring for your senior year is a huge sacrifice,” said Pyzik, who switched from a finance degree to economics when a large portion of her credits wouldn’t transfer to the UO business school. “If I have my little heaven I don’t want to go to the unknown. But I see Helen as huge for my running career and I know we work together really well and so I knew if I want to progress with my athletics, I had to follow her here.”
Pyzik’s arrival at Oregon helped ease some of the anxiety surrounding the program following the departure of former coach Maurica Powell and a pair of all-American runners to Washington.
With her success at San Francisco last season, it was presumed Pyzik would be the frontrunner the Ducks needed to stay nationally relevant during Lehman-Winters’ first season.
But with senior Jessica Hull’s emergence as one of the nation’s best runners, the improvement of senior Susan Ejore and the steady, under-the-radar season put together by senior all-American Carmela Cardama Baez, the Ducks haven’t needed Pyzik to be a savior.
But she’s still been really good.
Pyzik was the Ducks’ second finisher behind Hull at the Wisconsin Pre-Nationals on Oct. 13 when she was 12th overall, and again at the Pac-12 championships Oct. 26 when she placed fourth.
She was seventh at the NCAA West Regional meet last weekend, behind Hull and Ejore.
“I feel the expectations a little bit,” Pyzik said.. “Helen never made me feel like I had that responsibility on my back. … I felt more of the pressure because (Oregon) is a huge name and it’s a huge responsibility to perform for the University of Oregon. But with every race I feel more confident.”
Pyzik admitted being initially overwhelmed by the all the resources offered at Oregon, especially when it came to training and recovery, and she’s worked hard to maintain her competitive edge amid all the perks.
“When I came from Poland everything at USF was so huge for me and then I came here and it’s even more, it’s like an Olympians factory,” she said with a laugh. “At the beginning I was really shocked by all of that. I felt like (at USF) I had a little and I could take advantage of the little and make a huge step.”
Lehman-Winters initially encouraged Pyzik to stay with the Dons, where she was a three-time NCAA cross country championships qualifier and second-team all-American on the track after finishing 10th in the 10,000 at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championship meet last June. Pyzik said she didn’t decide to leave until the new coaching staff was hired at San Francisco, and Lehman-Winters was more than happy to take her in at Oregon.
“Every kid is special, but it’s always hard to start a process with an athlete and you don’t get to finish it, especially a high-level athlete like her,” Lehman-Winters said. “So the opportunity to come here and finish what we started, I’m mostly just happy for her because I knew that it would be a really good opportunity for her and her future.”