It is a warm, sunny day in Waco, Texas, about 15 minutes before the bus leaves to take the team from the hotel out to the Big 12 Championship course. Most coaches are getting a final bite to eat, corralling runners for a team meeting or making a few final tweaks to their race plans.
Not this coach. This coach has already held her team meeting and has the confidence in her runners that they will execute on the course. Now, she is hunting down a blow-dryer for her freshly painted toenails to ensure they don’t smear when she puts on her running shoes.
The van arrives out front and the runners load their bags and take their seats as they drive to the course. Normally, each runner will have a different pre-race routine, whether it be focusing on their personal race strategy or listening to their favorite pump-up music.
Not this team. This team is jamming out to Katy Perry and whoever else comes on the radio. Each runner is singing as loudly as the next.
This is the relaxed atmosphere Andrea Grove-McDonough has created in her first year as the Iowa State women’s cross country head coach.
“I try not to take myself too seriously and I have complete faith in my teams and in their preparation,” Grove-McDonough said. “Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am as competitive as they come. I’m constantly feeling like I’ve got something to prove and my teams take on that mentality. We are always going to fight and always going to grind.”
“That being said, I try to have fun when I’m on the road and keep the mood light,” Grove-McDonough added. “When it’s all said and done, before and after the meet, we are going to be having fun and winning on the course all at the same time.”
Several runners on the team were asked to describe their new coach using three words. While two attributes varied, one remained consistent. Energy. Each runner is quick to mention the amount of energy and the enthusiasm Grove-McDonough brings to the program.
The first-year coach preaches the importance of relaxed-focus to her runners, reminding them of their accomplishments in practice and what they’ve done throughout the season. Cyclone senior and team co-captain Maggie Gannon best illustrated her coach’s impact on the team.
“Coach McDonough brings a vibe to the team that takes a lot of the pressure off of us,” Gannon said. “She always focuses us on what we’ve been doing in practice and that’s been the great thing about transitioning from practices to racing. We’re learning in workouts what it feels like to race and how to deal with pains during the races.”
Junior co-captain Katy Moen also noted Grove-McDonough’s skill in alleviating unnecessary pressure on race day.
“[Coach] relieves the pressures of racing and competing in all the right ways,” Moen said. “She always says, ‘I just need you to be solid. Even if you don’t do “great”, it’s still going to be pretty good.’ All she asks is that we walk off the line knowing we gave it all we had.”
Gannon, Moen and fellow co-captain Sam Bluske each stated Grove-McDonough’s excellent ability to communicate and how extremely in-tune she is with her athletes. Her hands-on approach helps her to know exactly what the runners are feeling and when something is hindering their performance. Being able to talk her runners through their challenges allows them to break through those barriers faster than if they had tackled the obstacles on their own.
Sophomore standout Crystal Nelson shared the same sentiment as her co-captains.
“If I have a bad workout, she immediately notices and pulls me aside after practice to talk, asking me what’s wrong,” Nelson said. “It’s great how much she notices when something is bothering us, even if it’s something from off the course.”
It’s nearly impossible to argue with the results. The Cyclone women’s team is currently ranked No. 7 nationally after starting the season outside of the top-25. Grove-McDonough was named both Big 12 and NCAA Midwest Regional Women’s Coach of the year for her team’s performances. Under her instruction, Freshman Bethanie Brown earned Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and Nelson was named Midwest Regional Women’s Athlete of the Year, taking home the individual title at the regional meet.
The team has also added small additions to their race-day uniforms this season, wearing glittery headbands and Iowa State face tattoos. The team hasn’t done this in past years, but the girls are off and running with it and have no intentions of going back.
The Cyclones will wrap up their 2013 season Saturday at the NCAA Championships in Terra Haute, Ind. The women’s race will begin at approximately 12:15 p.m. CT.
“Deep down, every girl wants to wear a sparkly headband and face tattoo,” Gannon said. “We all want to be rah-rah about Iowa State.”
“The bottom line for me is to be yourself and march to your own drummer,” Grove-McDonough said. “My drummer just happens to like a little glitter. I encourage them to be themselves because in the end, it’s not what they wear that makes the Iowa State women hard to beat. It’s that they believe in themselves and they’re tough…Really tough.”