Laura Hollander simply decided in the fourth grade that she wanted to be a runner.
Growing up in Orange County, she also played basketball and soccer. But Hollander had strong feelings about her future being rooted in running.
She didn’t know why. How could she have?
The writers of “Rocky” couldn’t have seen this coming.
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Hollander’s early success as a freshman running cross country at Cal Poly and the relative obscurity from which she emerged is enough to strip the term “meteoric rise” of its status as a cliché.
Recruited? Two years ago, if a college coach even knew the name of the junior at Huntington Beach Marina High, there was no way for her to know. She hadn’t been a standout runner in any of her first three years of high school.
In the span of her senior season, however, Hollander suddenly started winning CIF-Southern Section titles, ran some of the fastest times in the history of Orange County and got recruiting attention from the likes of UCLA and Stanford.
Today, coming into a season where she was still relatively unknown as a collegian, Hollander’s name is being seriously discussed as an individual national championship contender — and she’s earned it in blockbuster fashion.
“I want to just try to stay the same way that I’ve always been,” Hollander said. “It’s cool to get that recognition, but I just want to stay grounded and remember the work that I’ve put in. They talk about me at a national level, but I’m still me, and I try to keep a simple mindset about it.”
Hollander opened the nation’s eyes with a shocking victory at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational this past Friday in Madison, Wis.
In her first time running a 6K race, Hollander finished in 19 minutes, 33 seconds — 2 seconds ahead of Iowa State senior Betsy Saina, a 2012 qualifier for the Kenyan Olympic Trials and one of the favorites to win the NCAA women’s cross country title this year.
Hollander’s time was also a course and meet record. Michigan State’s Emily MacLeod set the previous course record at 19:53.8 in 2010. The meet record belonged to Villanova’s Sheila Reid, set last season at 19:54.4 before she won the second of her back-to-back NCAA individual women’s cross country titles. Former Mission Prep star Jordan Hasay, now a senior at Oregon and another NCAA title contender, ran 20:01.9 at last year’s meet.
In a way, the victory in Wisconsin in a meet featuring 28 of the most highly regarded teams in the country was more of the same for Hollander.
She set a course record in the season-opening UCSB Lagoon Open and weeks later won the Pac-12 Preview hosted by UCLA, beating Stanford’s Kathy Kroeger, the 2011 Pac-12 runner up.
Undefeated in her college career, the buzz surrounding Hollander is heightened because she’s only a freshman.
“It doesn’t happen often,” Cal Poly track and field and cross country director Mark Conover said of Hollander’s immediate success. “Where she’s at with her training, I’ve never experienced that personally before, but I certainly understand it.
“If you just look at her serious commitment to her training and her race results, then certainly, you could say she’s already proven that she can compete at the very top level.”
Hollander’s breakout began with a body transformation in high school.
Knowing she needed to make a change in her life if she wanted her grade-school dreams of being a runner come true, Hollander dropped 40 pounds between her sophomore and senior seasons in high school.
As she became a consistent winner, the story was well told by her local hometown media.
“I never watched what I ate,” Hollander said. “I loved junk food and I loved sweets. It’s one of those things where if you’re not thinking about it, it affects you over time.
“I could get through everyday life being like that, but if I wanted to be a runner, if I wanted to be better, I had to change something.”
Weight loss didn’t change Hollander’s mindset or race strategy. Even when she wasn’t a favorite to win races, she went out to a fast start just like she did against the stacked field in Wisconsin.
Without those extra pounds, however, her natural talent was revealed. She not only fostered the desire to take training more seriously, her body has been able to match a supreme dedication.
The foundation for Hollander’s collegiate success has been her ability to handle a training regimen that most freshmen aren’t ready to take on when they first arrive on campus, Conover said.
The gamut includes daily training runs, sometimes twice daily, and longer 14- to 15-mile runs on the weekends. Add in collegiate-level weight training, and Hollander is proving able to put in the extra work needed to come through on race day.
“She’s been able to do some of this type of training earlier on, and her body handles it and recovers well,” Conover said. “As a result, she’s been able to get very fit, and that’s what leads to great race performances, your fitness level.”
And what comes with great race performances is celebration, scrutiny and expectations.
Hollander has already felt the squeeze of accommodating multiple media requests for her time.
As next weekend’s Big West Conference Championships approach, more eyes will be on her result than ever before.
While she only hopes to be able to make it to the national championships in November, newfound fans have made passionate arguments for why she’ll not only be there but win going away.
She and Conover will try to avoid all of that by continuing the hard work and trying not to get distracted by daydreams of future success.
“It’s a delayed gratification sport,” Conover said. “You’re not scoring the winning goal or getting the winning hoop. What you do today doesn’t pay off until later on down the road.”
For fourth-grade Hollander, later is now.