By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Vanderbilt senior Kristen Findley is accustomed to being on the move.
Having visited more than 30 countries and having lived all over the world, the adventurous runner is now leading her team into its second consecutive NCAA Cross Country Championship appearance on Saturday at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer Park in Louisville, Ky.
“She actually doesn’t know what it’s like to be in one place for a long time,” Vanderbilt head coach Steve Keith said. “That’s been a defining part of her as an individual and her personality obviously is one that enjoys all of the differences.”
Findley hails from Boise, Idaho, but, when she was just 10 years old, moved to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where her father Jim, a chemical engineer, took a job with an oil company. It proved to be a twist of fate, as the move proved to provide the spark to her running career.
“I think the most disappointing things when I found out we were moving to Saudi Arabia was that we would have to leave my dog behind and there would be a lot less skiing,” Findley said. “I honestly don’t know if I would have ever gone into running if we didn’t go over there. I was pretty set on becoming a downhill ski racer and that was no longer really possible in Saudi Arabia.”
The journey also turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime, allowing Findley to see the world.
“One thing I never expected to get out of it was all the travel experiences that we were able to do as a family while we were over there,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate to travel to over 30 countries and it has been a real treat to be able to do that with my family, and see different cultures and everything.”
Findley’s voyage through life at such a young age has molded in her a spirit that endures.
“She is the kind of kid that loves adventure,” Keith said. “She has taken so many different paths and journeys. She grew up with adventures and has always gotten the most out of them.”
Findley spent four years in Saudi Arabia, where she involved herself in countless activities and, among them, realized that she had a natural proficiency for running.
“I did a lot of different activities in middle school,” Findley said. “I was part of multiple different ballet groups, I did jazz dancing as well, and I was on two different travel soccer teams. In addition, I did an after-school activity as part of school, so I started doing track. One of my soccer buddies and I found out that we were pretty good at it. We both came close to the school record in the 800 and the mile. That’s kind of how I got started with it.”
When she returned to the United States, Findley enrolled in The Thatcher School in Ojai, Calif., a boarding school where she would be exposed to even more opportunities. In her second year at the school, she began to take running seriously.
“In high school, I was required to take care of a horse for my entire freshman year – clean the stall, feed it twice a day and ride it five days a week,” Findley said. “I wouldn’t really train at all, I would just compete in the meets. I actually started training my sophomore year and found out that I was a lot faster when I was training for meets. It became a lot more fun and I got more into it.”
She concluded her high school career with 12 varsity letters, competing in cross country, soccer and track and field, finishing eighth at the state cross country meet in 2007. Findley holds her school’s record in the 1,600m and 3,200m. Her best mile time as a high schooler was 5:00.74.
As she wrapped up her career as a prep, Findley was looking for a university that fulfilled her two-fold ambition: high-level competition and top-notch academics.
“My main criterion for the college that I was picking was really three things,” Findley said. “It needed to have a good program in biomedical engineering because I wanted to study that; I wanted to go to a Division I school because I thought it would be fun to be with the big dogs; lastly, I wanted to be in a city that was a fun city and I had heard a lot of things about Nashville and the music scene.”
That wasn’t the only adventure that surrounded the conclusion of her high school days. As a graduation present from her father, Jim, the duo climbed the Matterhorn which, among other things, convinced Findley she could do just about anything.
Findley made the decision to walk-on to the cross country team at Vanderbilt. At the time, Keith was still in the early stages of his long-term building plan. The Commodores hadn’t yet exploded onto the national scene, but Keith knew it would be only a matter of time.
Findley fit into Vanderbilt’s future plans quite nicely.
“At the time, her running five flat and just over 11 minutes (3,200m), we were pretty excited about that as a walk-on,” Keith said. “We were just starting to build and develop as a program. As a coach, you never know if someone is going to swallow the hook completely and really just run with it. It took a couple of years for her to get everything in balance. Once she got everything in the right perspective and right order, she really committed herself.”
As Keith alluded, the transition wasn’t as seamless as Findley had expected, but it was one at which she eventually thrived.
“I didn’t have to really deal with the transition of moving away from home because I’d already done that, but I think I expected to be more prepared than I actually was. In high school, I wasn’t living with my parents, but the school still walked us through things, sent us tons of reminder e-mails and things. I was sort of expecting that here and it was a little bit of a surprise to learn that in college you are completely on your own.”
Still, with all of her worldly experiences and the countless transitions she had made in her life before the age of 18, Findley was prepared to handle an unexpected situation.
“I’m pretty adaptable to being thrown into situations,” Findley said. “I’ve experienced almost every possible mishap in the airport. When I am thrown into situations, I’ve been able to handle them pretty well.”
The 2011 campaign proved to be a breakthrough year for the Vanderbilt cross country squad. Led by senior Alexa Rogers and junior Jordan White, the Commodores leapt on to the national scene with a second-place finish at last season’s highly competitive Wisconsin adidas Invitational. Vanderbilt defeated 19 ranked teams in the process at that meet.
Two weeks later, the Commodores claimed the first-ever Southeastern Conference Championship in program history and went on to place sixth at the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., in the program’s first-ever appearance at the national meet.
Findley was along for the ride and that greatness inspired her to want to be a part of the scoring equation for Vanderbilt.
“It definitely started last year when I went as an alternate to nationals,” Findley said of her improvement. “I was so excited to be there at all, but it lit some kind of fire in me, just being on the sidelines cheering instead of running. The biggest thing that I’ve gotten out of this season is being able to run with my teammates. Last year, there was a pretty big gap. Our top five, six and seven were pretty close together. They always talked about how special it was to run as a team and next to their teammates. They instilled this sense of synergy, but I was always off the pack last year.”
Keith also noticed a change in Findley about that same time that he has seen pay dividends ever since. Last season, she set school records in two events (the indoor 1,000m and the outdoor 1,500 meters) and was part of two school-record-setting relays.
“A year ago last fall, you could tell that a switch had gone off,” Keith said. “She was just really dedicated to becoming the best athlete that she could. She has just really figured out what it is to be an athlete and to keep pushing those limits. With us, she has been channeling that the right way. We saw a glimpse of it last fall and then in indoors, she really started coming into her own. She really hasn’t backed off.”
Not only has Findley stepped up her game on the track and course, but also with her teammates, who look up to her as a role model.
“I think that it’s really interesting that when you become a senior, the upperclassmen look up to you in a way that you don’t really expect but you just kind of fall into that leadership position,” Findley said. “It’s sort of automatic that you’re looked up to as a leader when you’re a senior. I tend to rise to the expectations people have of me. When I felt underclassmen responding to me as a senior leader, that enabled me to step into that position.”
That maturity and leadership has played itself out in Findley’s relationship with her coach.
“She and I are on the same wavelength quite a bit and that’s been really enjoyable to be able to talk with her,” Keith said. “When you’ve got a kid that you’ve had for four years now, your coaching becomes more of a conversation or cooperative effort. That’s what’s really enjoyable for any coach when your kids develop and you’re able to talk to them on a one-on-one friend level of what is going to work and what way you should go.”
Findley has been Vanderbilt’s top runner for much of the season, ranking second in the SEC in the 5K with a time of 16:59.26. She ranks among the top-10 runners in the SEC this season with a 6K time of 20:22.00 at the NCAA South Regional.
She expects to lead her team to a second consecutive top-10 finish or even higher at the NCAA Championships, which begin at 12 p.m. ET Saturday. It would be the perfect ending to a collegiate cross country career for an athlete who has grown significantly and has meant so much to a Vanderbilt program that has ascended to among the national elite.
“She is a very lively spirit,” Keith said. “I think every team needs one or two kids like her to really keep things entertaining and alive. Her growth from her freshman year to basically last spring when she really broke out has been great to see. To come in as a walk-on getting in on your own and then developing into the student-athlete that she is now, you love to see that as a coach.”