Wincheski breaks records to lead Bulldogs

Jessica Brock
Sports Writer
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Photo by Walker Lezotte
Clara Wincheski, a UNCA senior cross country runner, competes at the Covered Bridge Open at Appalachian State University on Sept. 3.

With a body finally in healthy condition, Clara Wincheski had her eyes set on racing confidently during her senior year.
She started her fall 2021 season on a note better than she expected — setting a new school record in the 5,000-meters for cross country.
“I went into it with an open mind and just excited to race again,” said Wincheski, senior on the UNC Asheville women’s cross country team. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs, so being able to feel good running again was nice. My main goal this season is to honestly just stay healthy.”
Wincheski ran at the Covered Bridge Open at Appalachian State University, where she broke the school’s women’s 5k record with a time of 17:41:31, a record that hadn’t been broken since 1999.
This feat earned her Big South women’s cross country runner of the week for Sept. 9, an honor she has now earned more times in her collegiate career than any other runner in the history of the women’s program.
She turned around two weeks later and broke the record again at the Firetower Project Meet back at Appalachian State with a time of 17:36:06, an almost five second improvement.
“She’s worked hard for this over the past few years, so this is a big accomplishment for her,” said Adam Puett, head coach of UNCA’s cross country team.
This was one of many feats for Wincheski, but her four years at UNCA have been anything but easy. Between injuries and multiple coaching changes, she has overcome many hurdles to reach the success she now owns.
Wincheski’s freshman year appeared to be a breakout year for her. She looked solid in training and felt pretty healthy. She earned four top-10 meet finishes, including a win at the UNCA Cross Country Invitational. Additionally, she achieved Big South women’s cross country runner of the week three times.
However, things took a turn for the worst in mid-January 2019 when she started experiencing serious pain in her right hip. After a series of tests and physical therapy, doctors determined she had suffered a stress fracture that required surgery to fix.
After receiving three screws in her hip and spending a month or so on crutches, she said she felt ready to run again, or so she thought.
“I’d spent the spring and summer doing a lightened version of the training plan, just trying to get back into it,” Wincheski said. “I was just coming back from surgery and I was excited to race again until I started to feel pain in my other hip.”
It was fall 2019 and Wincheski was preparing to start her sophomore season. She ran at the Covered Bridge Open and a Montreat-UNCA dual meet thinking she could deal with the pain, now localized in her other hip. She said her coach at the time, the second coach the Bulldogs had in the two years she’d been here, kept telling her she was fine and needed to be a bit tougher. 
Unfortunately for her, toughness was not the answer.
“I asked on different occasions if maybe the pain was from overcompensating because of surgery or if I could cross-train to take some of the pressure off, but it was always ‘No, no, no,’” Wincheski said. “I was relatively fine until I was running during a workout and my body gave out and I just kind of fell over in pain.”
She went through a process of tests and physical therapy again only to find a stress fracture in her other hip. Luckily, she did not need surgery, just time off to let it heal on its own.
“I had healed and was in the process of coming back that spring and there was COVID, where we all went home,” Wincheski said. “The time during quarantine was difficult because I was really trying to build myself back up with training but I was also scared because I didn’t want to break my hip again.”
By the time colleges went back to school and the world worked on regaining normalcy, Wincheski had fully healed and worked on building up her strength and confidence. She and the rest of the UNCA team didn’t race until spring 2021 as the NCAA moved most fall sport seasons to the spring to allow for safe reacclimation to public areas after quarantine.
Puett said he saw newfound strength in Wincheski’s character as she battled back from her second injury.
“One way I’ve really seen Clara grow is in how she’s become more confident in her running and has become easier to coach because of it. She’s gotten really good at being resilient and trusting the process,” Puett said. “She wasn’t back to great racing condition until last fall, so seeing how far she’s come is something really great.”
In the spring, she ran in three races as a junior, finishing as high as fourth place. At the Big South Championships, she earned All-Big South honors.
She was injured for much of freshman and sophomore year, and was able to come back in her junior year strong. Coming back from such a serious injury, especially when surgery is involved, is such a hard thing to do,” said India Appleton, senior on the women’s cross country team and Wincheski’s training partner.
The Big South Championships were a big deal for her in more ways than one, from her first ever conference experience to earning All-Big South honors for the second time after the roller coaster ride her career had been up until that point.
“I loved every second of it, but it was really weird for me too because all of my teammates had, like most freshmen, gotten that first taste three years ago. Meanwhile, I was fascinated with how many athletes there were and the fact that we raced at like 9 p.m.,” Wincheski said. “I kind of felt like a freshman. But overall it was really fun and exciting to be at.”
Wincheski said she attributes much of her comeback and success to her great coaches and teammates, Appleton in particular.
“Training with India has been great. I really feel like she helps push me to be my best. I mean she has one of the best work ethics I’ve ever seen and that’s super empowering,” Wincheski said. “It’s cool because it’s like I have an internal competitor. Some meets she’s faster or the other way around, which is nice because it allows me to push myself and gives me something to strive for. No matter which of us, or any of our teammates for that matter, finishes on top we’re all still friends in the end.”
Puett said it’s special how close the team is and how their positive competitive energy pushes each of them to be their best. He said they all feed off of each other’s work ethics and accomplishments at practice and in competition.
The work of Wincheski and other teammates showed as the team began a strong start to this season out on the course. Appleton also had a standout performance at the Firetower Project Meet, where she came within one second of the previous school record. Her time of 17:48:87 was a personal best for her and ranked her third all-time for the 5k in program history.
The two seniors were part of the 16 of the 18 runners who achieved personal bests at this meet.
This gradual gaining of momentum is this type of improvement Puett looked forward to going into this season.
“We were able to start out this season a lot faster than we ended last year, just based on time trial times and the Covered Bridge Open. It will be fun to see the team’s progression from meet to meet,” Puett said. “I’m excited to see how the seniors have grown and progressed over the years and the positive ways they’ve overcome the obstacles they’ve faced. I mean they’ve been through three coaches, a pandemic and a few injuries here and there.”
Appleton said it has been exciting seeing how far the team has come in the past three years as they have gone through three different coaches since her time at UNCA.
“I couldn’t be happier with our coaching staff now. I am forever grateful for everything that Coach Puett and Coach Williams do for all of us.  We have seen tremendous improvement in the past year, and it couldn’t have happened without their hard work,” Appleton said.