Track & Field: Freshman Ellie Purrier incredible during first year at indoor track
Before coming to UNH this year, freshman Ellie Purrier had run cross country, outdoor track and played a lot of basketball. One thing she hadn't done, though, was indoor track.
So, it didn't occur to the Vermont native until she'd broken a school record in the mile event at the America East Indoor Championship that her coaches had an NCAA National Championship bid in mind for her.
"To be quite honest, until then, she really hadn't thought that we were thinking about nationals," UNH women's track and field head coach Robert Hoppler said.
"I didn't," Purrier said.
Six days later, Hoppler entered Purrier into Boston University's Last Chance Meet, the final opportunity for indoor athletes to qualify for nationals. Purrier qualified, breaking her own record from six days before, becoming 15th in the nation, earning the title of Second-Team All American and getting a spot at nationals. Two weeks later, she raced in the qualifying heat in the championship race at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, N.M. Though she failed to advance to the next day's final, she came home with experience most indoor track athletes will never have.
"For a kid who was a high school basketball player the previous year, that's a pretty extraordinary rise," Hoppler said.
Purrier's success is based on more than natural talent. It's true that, after spending years working on a farm in Montgomerie, Vt., she's one of the strongest athletes on the track team. In addition, she has natural speed. When asked about intangibles, though, Hoppler said her competitive nature has helped her overcome lack of experience.
"Her competitiveness supersedes some of the stuff she may not know," Hoppler said. "If you don't race with passion and heart and competitiveness, it doesn't matter how talented you are. I've had talented kids before [who have not been as successful], and so she brings that heat and that competitiveness and that fun, and that's really good."
Hoppler said that Purrier also has benefited from the ability to not overthink races.
"I think Ellie would tell you that you draw a line in the sand, you run eight times around, whoever gets back there first, that's the sport," Hoppler said. "So we can talk about heats, we can talk about this, we can talk about that. That's the way Ellie looks at it."
When Hoppler decided to enter Purrier into the Last Chance Meet on March 2, he made a point to keep his expectations reasonable. He'd observe a strong, fast girl with a highly competitive nature develop as an indoor track athlete at an accelerated pace. She'd already accomplished plenty for a freshman. The bottom line for him was to give Purrier experience.
"As a freshman it was like, well, let's see how it goes," Hoppler said. "It'll be an experience no matter what. We want to just give you that experience for your future, and if you happen to run great, you may make nationals, and if you don't run great, well you get the experience and it's going to help you down the road."
When Purrier arrived at BU and the events began, she saw how competitive the afternoon was going to be. These were some of the best athletes she'd ever raced against.
"I didn't put a lot of pressure on myself because if I didn't make it, I'm like, whatever, I'm still a freshman, but I was able to run with girls that were faster than I've ever run with before," Purrier said.
Purrier excelled, though. She placed third in the mile race with a school record time of four minutes and 36.14 seconds. It was good enough to put her at 15th in the nation, meaning she'd be in Albuquerque on March 14.
"She got into that race and was able to race her way into the nationals," Hoppler said. "She had a spectacular race and qualified."
Two weeks later, Hoppler had the same mentality for the NCAA National Championship as he did for the Last Chance Meet. In the very least, it's all great experience for such a young athlete.
"The Nationals experience was the same type of thing," Hoppler said. "It was the cherry on top of this incredible season, and it was a learning experience."
Pitted against eight other runners, Purrier kept a good pace for much of her heat. It was not until the eighth and final lap that she fell behind. There, she tried to "kick," or begin her finish, but she was out of position, keeping her from placing high in the race.
In addition, the difference in altitude in Albuquerque had an impact on the race for Purrier.
"If [altitude] is going to have an effect, it's going to have an effect late in the race, and I think Ellie felt that a little bit," Hoppler said.
Being so young, Purrier gained a lot of knowledge from her qualifier heat that most freshmen would kill for. Many athletes, Hoppler said, don't get more than one chance at nationals, and that chance can come late in a collegiate career.
"Now she understands some of the things she needs to work on to improve," Hoppler said. "There was nothing that could have been done that day. She did great. She did the absolute best that she could. I was very proud of her."
Now that she realizes how high her ceiling might be in indoor track, Purrier said that she is learning to cope with the pressure such understanding brings.
"It's something I'm not really used to yet," Purrier said. "I try to deal with it, and learn how to cope with it and race with it. It pushes me a little bit. I get really excited."
Even with her success, Hoppler said that he treats Purrier like every other athlete on the team. Her training process is no different than that of her teammates, and he feels it's important to make that known. Purrier, too, has earned a reputation among her coaches and teammates as a team player.
However, Hoppler acknowledged that there is something special about Purrier. She's one of only five athletes to go to indoor nationals since 2007.
"To be quite honest, I don't coach any differently than any of the other kids in the program," Hoppler said. "But her success, and I think she realizes this, does set her apart. Not everyone's going to nationals. Only five have gone in seven years, so that's pretty good."
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