June 1, 2007

Right place, right time: Heptathletes set sprints off and running

One is the rock, and the other is the spark plug. Together, they were just what the doctor ordered to help revitalize the dragging sprints section of a track and field program on the rise.

Both very versatile athletes, fourth-years Nellie Movtchan and Trina Ruhland are neck-and-neck when they lay all their skills out on the track for the heptathlon. A friendly rivalry spurs the two teammates on as they try to outdo each other in everything from sprints to high jumps, javelin throws to shot put tosses. While the score sheet doesn’t show much difference between the pair, their two distinct personalities have combined for a perfect blend that sets a tone for incoming sprinters to follow.

“They pushed each other to different heights than they would have done on their own,” head coach Chris Hall said. “I don’t know if I could point to someone who led our team more than anyone else, but people look to our seniors, and they’ve set a really fine example for other athletes.”

Arriving in Hyde Park four years ago, both sprinters had some reservations about running with the Maroons. Movtchan came in as a swimmer, and Ruhland was concerned about finding ways to stay on top of academics without the extra challenge of daily practices and taking off for weekend meets. Their careers got off to slow starts in their rookie seasons, but by the end of the year, both had decided to sign up for another hitch and continue to raise the standard for Chicago’s fleet-footed.

Distance runners were the bread and butter of the program at the time, with top UAA finishes and national qualifiers going to the squad mostly for long events. At practices, Movtchan and Ruhland were often the only two sprinters working out. They understood what it was like for the team to not be competitive in their specialties at meets, and they wanted to see that change.

“We just needed some people in our program that, one, had the ability to make an impact at UAAs, and two, had a desire to go beyond that and go to NCAAs,” Hall said. “They were the right two people at the right time.”

It wasn’t skill alone that made Movtchan and Ruhland the perfect match for jump-starting the sprints, even though both were starting to set their marks on the squad by their sophomore years. Ruhland in particular broke through as a force to be reckoned with that spring as part of the 4x400-meter relay that qualified for the outdoor Nationals. For the duo, the X-factor that helped key the sprinting resurgence was letting their complementary personalities play out on the track.

With a fierce sense of competition, Movtchan brings the fire to both meets and practices with her “it’s-not-ever-good-enough” attitude. This kind of drive made all the difference in the Woodbury, MN, native’s performance as a member of the distance medley relay last year at the indoor NCAAs. Receiving the baton shoulder-to-shoulder with her opposition, Movtchan stepped on the gas, separating herself from the rest of the pack and helping clinch the relay’s seventh-place finish for All-American status.

“I was curious to see how Nellie was going to respond to that atmosphere,” Hall said. “That day Nellie really took that step where she said, ‘I’m not just going to be at Nationals, but I’m going to be an All-American.’”

Balancing out the fast and furious Movtchan, Ruhland was the steadying force with her “lunch pail” persona. She naturally took on veteran responsibilities early on, walking with rookies on the 4x400-meter relay at NCAAs as a second-year to settle pre-race jitters.

“Trina’s always been that rock that other people could look to,” Hall said.

Going into their senior years, the Maroons set out with a conference title as a clear goal for the season. The work that Movtchan, Ruhland, and others had put into boosting the squad’s competitiveness across the board made taking a UAA banner back to Hyde Park a real possibility.

At the indoor league championships in Boston on March 2–3, Chicago was edged out of first by 3.5 points with Wash U reclaiming the title. Ruhland garnered All-UAA honors with third-place finishes in the 200-meter dash (26.93 seconds) and the long jump (5.17 meters), while also running a leg in the 4x400-meter relay’s silver medal effort (4:08.49).

The South Siders took the next seven weeks to gear up for another crack at the Bears and a shot at coming out on top of the UAA at the outdoor championships in Atlanta on April 21–22. Movtchan made up for a quite showing in March by recording a 1:04.16 in the 400-meter hurdles, which was good for first in the event, and posting a runner-up effort in the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 15.31 seconds. She also teamed up with Ruhland as part of the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays.

Clocking 49.19 seconds, the 4x100 quartet slipped past Case Western to take gold, and the 4x400 followed with silver with a 4:05.06. Despite the strong outings of these relays, at the end of the day, the South Siders finished second and behind the Bears once again.

In many ways, the meet marked a fitting end for the two veterans’ careers. It firmly established Chicago sprints among the best in the UAA, with the close-knit pair that played a central role to turning that segment of the program around once again leading the charge.

“Both of them really threw themselves into track and field after their first years,” Hall said. “They had a bit of success and then got hungry for more. They’ve really meant a lot to the development of our sprints.”