Abraham smashed obstacles to lead cross country

By Kathryn Stewart

Fourth-year Vidthya Abraham had a lot on her mind at the 2006 cross-country regionals. The pressure was intense enough with a chance to toe the line at NCAAs only one good race away, but Abraham also had memories of last year’s regional meet threatening to weigh her down.

At the 2005 regional championship, the women were set to clinch a spot at Nationals. Then, during the last leg of the race, the South Carolina native’s chronic asthma kicked in. As her lungs squeezed shut, Abraham dropped from 17th to 37th, but she powered on and crossed the finish line deprived of both oxygen and an NCAA bid.

The biological sciences major shrugs off her condition, deeming it no different than any one of the myriad chronic injuries her teammates suffer through. Her physical and mental resolve paid off this year at regionals where Abraham was the 18th runner across the line, helping send the women’s team to NCAAs for the first time since 2003. At NCAAs, she led the team to a 19th-place finish, nabbing the 18th spot and All-American honors for herself in the process.

“At the national meet this year, people were stuck in the mud—literally,” fourth-year Dilshanie Perera said. “Vidthya showed great poise, strength, and acute determination and placed in the top 30 out of a field made up of the best runners in the entire country.”

While some might marvel at Abraham’s focus and motivation under such harsh conditions, teammates and coaches will testify that her performance at Rock Island this fall was typical of the distance veteran. Despite asthma and a delayed start, Abraham has made her mark in the school record books.

“Nothing Vidthya has accomplished has come easily,” head coach Chris Hall said. “I don’t think I have ever seen an athlete improve as much and as consistently as she has over the past four years. She’s truly a testament to heart and hard work.”

“Vidthya is a true team leader and an awesome teammate to train with. She motivates others to train and compete at a high level and unselfishly puts the team’s goals ahead of her personal goals,” classmate Jackie Kropp said. “Vidthya is a great competitor and it is great to see that her hard work paid off this year when she received All-American honors during the cross-country season.”

Despite accumulating a pile of all-conference, all-regional, and All-American honors during her tenure at Chicago, Abraham’s journey to the head of the pack has seen a fair number of trips and falls. Her late entry into the sport presented one of the distance squad’s most versatile members with a slew of problems from the very beginning.

“I didn’t start running until the end of my junior year of high school,” Abraham said. “I’d swum competitively since I was young but had to stop because of a heart condition. Once that was fixed, I just decided to start running. I went to a math and science high school, so athletics weren’t taken very seriously. I wasn’t planning on running in college until I talked to coach Hall and heard about the program here.”

Lacking the benefit of quality training during her high school years, Abraham began her collegiate career at a disadvantage that at first seemed insurmountable. Abraham also had the added obstacle of tangling with severe asthma during every workout and race.

“The one thing about Vidthya is that she will just never quit,” Hall said. “She’s had reason to do so. During her first year, she was never able to hang with the rest of her teammates during training and recovery runs. In order to catch up, she was training really, really hard. Hard enough to the point that I could tell she didn’t like it, but she stuck with it, and the results have been spectacular.”

Her hours spent pounding the pavement have been converted into some of the program’s fastest times. In addition to her success during the cross country season, the distance specialist can claim spots in Chicago’s record book in the mile, 3k, 5k, and 10k. Having honed her athletic and leadership skills, Abraham has also carved out a respected position within the team and earned the admiration of her peers and the coaching staff. In turn, the squad captain has relished in the camaraderie that she says defines this year’s women’s team.

“Every year is different, but I really think that this year, we understood what it meant to be a team,” Abraham said. “We didn’t have a star runner like we have had in the past, so we knew that we would have to work hard and work together to get to Nationals, and we did.”

“Vidthya’s style of leadership is less vocal. She leads quietly and by example,” Hall said. “She’s not the type to make speeches before races. She’ll take younger runners who are struggling under her wing, and during meets she’s always focused on what she has to do to improve the team’s position.”

Stories of mid-race asthma attacks and bone-crushing workouts cast Abraham’s story in a grim light, but she has met every challenge with quiet determination and mental fortitude. While awards and prestige have certainly made her transformation from first-year straggler to senior front-runner particularly fulfilling, Abraham took away more than trophies from her experience as a student-athlete at the U of C.

“It’s a nice balance,” Abraham said of splitting her time between the Reg and Henry Crown. “Obviously, academics are the priority here, but it’s nice to train and compete with people, especially when they also consider academics a priority…. Also, the team is fun to be around. You learn to never take yourself too seriously. We have a competitive D-III program, and we’re focused, but we spend enough time making fun of each other to keep things in perspective.”