Cross Country star breaks school records, has Olympic aspirations

by: Tyler SprinkleAsst. Sports Editor
A top UNC Asheville student athlete puts her teammates and personal happiness first and lets record-breaking times take care of themselves.
Senior cross country runner Emma Bussard has been a competitive runner for nearly 12 years, but claims this was the first season she felt a full, strong bond with her team and accredits this to her successes as a Bulldog.
“Knowing we have each other is the greatest feeling,” Bussard said. “Practicing and competing is so much harder without others to push you and make you accountable for each run.”
At the Big South Conference Championship earlier this month, Bussard earned a bronze medal and led her team to a fifth place finish. Her time of 17:47 for the 5K race gave her a spot on the Big South All-Conference team and tied a school record.
“I honestly had no idea what the school record was,” Bussard said. “I knew I needed to stay in third place for my team’s sake and not let anyone catch me. If someone passed me, I could not let them keep going.”
Bussard remained consistent in the 18-minute range all season, and getting to the point to mentally cross the finish line just a second under did not come easy for a seasoned runner.
“It’s been a long road for me,” Bussard said.  “Mental toughness is the hardest obstacle. This was the first season I really got ahold of it.”
She said keeping her head clear of the time clock and hiding her game face until lined at the starting arch are keys to her success.
“My teammates and I are always laughing, cracking jokes before races,” Bussard said. “This way there is less pressure, but I get completely focused minutes before the start. I remember telling girls to, ‘Shhhh!’ when they came to wish me luck at the starting line,” she said, laughing.
Two superstitious acts that reflect Bussard’s relaxed tone toward racing are dying her hair Bulldog royal blue and treating herself and teammate, junior Melanie Kulesz to a sweet dessert the night before a big meet.
“Mel and I go out and share cheesecake or a sundae,” Bussard said. “We try to keep our mind off things and not focus too much.”
Both Bussard and Kulesz red-shirted last season in preparation for 2012. The additional season of practice paid off, with the two leading the Bulldog pack at every meet.
“Red-shirting (last season) made me realize I can’t just train. I need to be competitive and race,” Kulesz said. “We all have so much passion for this sport, each other and our coaches. That is what it takes to win championship meets.”
Bussard and Kulesz’s close friendship off the trails are what enable the two to execute and perform at the highest levels. Head coach Jesse Norman respects their bond and acknowledges the importance of teamwork.
“It is vitally important to have a teammate that can help push you,” Norman said. “If you can compete with someone that is at the same level or better than you, usually that will raise both athletes’ competitive levels.”
Prior to her red-shirt season, Bussard traveled to Nepal and India as an exchange student. She did not let the unfamiliar soil hinder her from training, and woke up at 6 a.m. every day to fit in a workout.
“I thought about the trip the entire (conference) race,” Bussard said. “I wanted it to be worth it, make it all worth it.”
The entire cross country program had the same mindset, and Norman changed the workouts this season to include more circuit speed training. Both men’s and women’s team spent much time on them, which resulted in dropped times for many of the runners.
“I don’t ever second guess him,” Bussard said. “I always listen to his advice. He is the best coach ever.”
Norman said visa versa in reference to the women’s team toward Bussard. Her upbeat, positive attitude impacted the team’s mental stability throughout the season.
“A lot of times she can be a driving force for her teammates,” Norman said. “Emma’s been there, done that, so it gives her more credibility with her teammates.”
Bussard finished her collegiate running career at the South East Regional meet in Charlotte on Saturday. She placed 63rd overall with a time of 21:59 throughout the 6K course.
After graduating in May 2013, Bussard plans to stick around Asheville for at least a year and continue running with Kulesz to help her train for her final season as a Bulldog.
“Melanie knows everything about me,” Bussard said. “I can’t leave her. Our bond is so strong so I want to be there for her senior year, too.”
Bussard begins her final track season in a couple months, where she will compete in the steeplechase event. Her long term goal is to qualify for the steeplechase for the next Olympic games.
“If everything goes according to plan, she has a shot at qualifying for the NCAA National Championships,” Norman said. “Then she will have at least two more years to train and get more efficient at her hurdle clearance and get closer to the qualifying time.”
Competitive or not, Bussard plans to continue running until there is no enjoyment left.
“Running is not just a sport, it is a part of life and who I am,” Bussard said. “If you don’t love it anymore then it is just going to suck,” she said, laughing. “I’ll make every run count and enjoy it.”