Renaissance runner Winter paced track’s success

By Kathryn Stewart

Over the past four years, the Maroons’ running programs have grown from middle-of-the-road squads to national contenders. No athlete played a larger role in that resurgence than Jessica Winter.

An 11th place finish in the 1,500-meter run at nationals brought an end to her prolific career, but not before the fourth-year had established herself as one of the more dynamic athletes in school history. Winter has been compared to Hall-of-Famer Rhaina Echols (A.B. ’00), a four-time NCAA individual champion and the most successful runner in program history. Winter has come close to matching Echols’s myriad accomplishments, claiming All-UAA honors in cross country and indoor and outdoor track every year for the entire span of her tenure in Hyde Park.

The fourth-year math major has been distinguished as the UAA Athlete of the Week an astounding 15 times and can claim the fastest 800-meter time ever run outdoors by a Maroon. She toed the line at NCAAs twice in four years, and took home All-American accolades in cross country (2005) and indoor track (2004, 2006).

It was not always that way. Despite Winter’s extensive résumé of accomplishments, her racing career did not get off to a particularly enthusiastic start. She did not begin running competitively until high school, when she joined the team as a way of making friends in a new town.

“My mother thought I should do an activity so I could meet people,” Winter said. “Cross country was the only sport that didn’t cut. I must have been one of the worst runners on the team.”

She was rewarded for her decision quicker than she could have imagined. After a successful freshman track season that ended with a trip to the Illinois state meet as a member of a 4×800-meter relay, Winter’s interest in running increased. By her senior track season, she was aiming to compete in the 1,600-meter run at the state meet. A bad race at sectionals prevented Winter from claiming her spot at the starting line but cemented her commitment to competing for the Maroons.

“I felt like I had some unfinished business,” Winter said.

Winter had another motive for choosing Chicago. She has been a dedicated member of the musical community for the past four years, playing viola in the symphony and showcasing her talents in several smaller ensembles. Even with rigorous academic and athletic demands, Winter devotes the same amount of time to her viola as she does to her athletic career. It’s a time commitment that wouldn’t be possible at most other schools, but the Renaissance woman wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I was attracted to Chicago because I wanted the opportunity to participate in what I’d been pursuing,” Winter said. “D-III athletics meant that I would be able to run and the fact that Chicago didn’t have a conservatory meant that I could still play the viola.”

Four years of grueling workouts have paid off for both Winter and her coach. When asked about his top distance runner and women’s team captain, Hall has high praise for the steady improvement Winter has exhibited in the course of every season since the fall of 2002. Winter, in turn, credits Hall’s approach to training for a large part of her success as an athlete.

“I was really excited when Jessica decided to come here,” Hall said. “She just had so much untapped potential. She was a state qualifier, but I knew she could take her performance up to an even higher level.”

“Jessica is very internally motivated,” Hall said. “You could say she’s the typical Chicago athlete. She understands why she’s here and why she’s doing this. She’s been extremely easy to coach. I think she’s learned a lot and I know she has improved. We’ve had a number of All-American athletes here, but the level of consistency that Jessica has brought makes her stand out within that group.”

In addition to charting her own progress, Winter has helped to improve the overall competitive level of the women’s programs over the past four years. When she first arrived on campus, the squads were small and laid-back. Now she is at the helm of one of the largest women’s contingents out for cross country and track in program history.

“Expectations have gotten higher,” Winter said. “When I joined my first year, the women’s team was maybe 20 girls and practices were less serious. Now the average level of dedication is higher. There’s more training in the off-season. There’s more interaction between the various factions on the team. The team is getting bigger. It’s been nice to see this happen.”

An integral part of the women’s squad will depart when Winter is graduated. Teammates will miss her presence on the team from the level of prowess and dedication and support she brings during workouts and competition to her baking and Boggle skills.

“I guess when you’re six feet tall, have short red hair, and are really fast, it doesn’t take too much to establish a presence,” third-year Megan Myrick said. “She is a very talented runner, but instead of allowing that to be something that makes her intimidating to her teammates, she remains very approachable and open. Jess makes a very good apple pie. During apple season in the fall, she always has baked apple goods in her apartment. I will miss that this fall. Also, she can beat probably anyone at Boggle. Don’t challenge her to a game of Boggle unless you want to be destroyed.”

Proving that UAA rivalries wear thin after graduation, Winter plans on attending Carnegie Mellon in the near future to study environmental engineering after first taking a brief respite from studying to gain some real-world experience. She leaves behind an impressive legacy that extends beyond the track and the classroom. While teammates will remember (and miss) her quirky habits and the sight of their fearless leader dominating the competition, it was the little things she did, the things that separate the confident elite runners from everyone else, that remain in the minds of the coach who helped her reach that level.

“I’ll always remember her during her first-year at indoor UAAs,” Hall said. “She was entered in the 800 and ran a solid preliminary race and made it into the finals. At the starting line we realized that the top runner, the girl who was seeded first overall, wasn’t running. I looked over at Jessica and she just kind of winked at me like she was saying ‘I’ve got it.’”