By Tina Scruggs – firstname.lastname@example.org – Multimedia and Layout Editor
Melanie Kulesz expresses sadness about finishing her final semester on UNC Asheville’s cross country team.
Kulesz said she will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in business management with a minor in economics.
“I only have two days left as a college athlete. It’s just so sad. I never thought this day would come. I’ve wanted this season to go by so slowly because I just did not want it to end,” Kulesz said.
Kulesz nearly won at the conference meet, one of the cross country team’s biggest meets all year. Unfortunately, she could not force her body to perform the way she wanted.
“It was almost a dream come true because I actually almost won, which is a huge. I never thought that would happen. I led the whole race, and then I ended up collapsing like three times before the finish, with 100 meters to go. I can’t believe that happened,” Kulesz said.
According to Kulesz, the course boasts a high level of difficulty, the hardest she has faced. Near the end, with a 40 meter lead, she had an enormous uphill ahead of her, which the team referred to as “suicide hill.”
“I was feeling so great the whole race I just remember going up the hill and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m in the lead right now,’ and I was powering up the hill,” Kulesz said.
On the way down, Kulesz said she remembers trying to keep herself from falling on her wobbly legs. Reassuring herself her legs hurt because she was nearing the end of the race and just ran up an enormous hill, she told herself over and over just to finish.
“And then I was just like, ‘finish, finish, finish,’ and then my legs completely gave out once, so I kinda crawled, got back up and ran 10 more meters and fell again. I fell like three times, I was kind of losing vision, but I ended up finishing 14th. At least I finished, but it was really, really disappointing,” Kulesz said.
The team ended up placing third, but they were only two points from second. According to Kulesz, first was a bit of a longshot, though she said they went in hoping to win, something they have never been able to say before in her athletic career.
“We really focused on pack running and we definitely executed the strategy. Every race we were pack running and talking. The team dynamics are by far the best I’ve seen being here at UNCA,” Kulesz said.
Kulesz refers to herself as a “super senior,” and said she was able to witness the cross country program’s progress under her coach, Jesse Norman, thanks to her extra time at UNCA.
“I came here when it was only Jesse’s second year here. He kind of had to rebuild the whole program, but each year it’s a little better and better and I’m really excited to see how it is in the future,” the Tennessee native said.
Overall, Kulesz said she considers the home meet the best meet the team had. More people attended, and there was more coverage.
“The guys and girls easily won that meet and we had our top five girls under 19 minutes, which is huge for our team,” Kulesz said. “We just had really high finishes. The first meet at Appalachian State we got second, and then we went back to App and we got fourth, but the second time it was like a huge meet with like Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest, and we usually finish 13th or 16th and we got 4th. So that was really exciting.”
Kulesz said she felt the team received much more support this year because they did well this semester.
“They definitely know what we’re doing and they know what’s going on, but you get a lot more support when you’re doing well, so I think that’s really what it was. We got a lot more support on the website, and apparently Jesse, my coach, was getting emails all the time about how well we were doing,” Kulesz said.
According to Kulesz, running cross country improved her self-confidence. Looking back to photos from her freshman year, Kulesz said she can tell by her hunched-over stance she struggled with confidence issues. Now, her coach tells Kulesz often he can see she has her confidence back.
“We continually have freshman come in and I’ve been blessed and thankful to be able to have a great coach that puts trust in me and just gain experience from that,” Kulesz said.
Kulesz said she is applying to graduate school for to get her master’s in business administration. She also said she plans to keep running, and eventually hopes to run an iron man, which requires swimming, biking 100 miles and running a marathon.
“I want to do half-marathons and marathons, and my ultimate goal I’ve had forever is to do an iron man,” Kulesz said. “It’s really hard, but it’s been my goal since I was a little girl. I’m really blessed to have done a sport that I can do on my own. I can run on my own after college. It’ll just never be the same because I won’t have a team like I do here – and that’s the worst part.”