OXFORD, Miss. -- On a rain-soaked morning last October, Mary Alex England stood before assistant coach Erin Dawson for her walk-on tryout at Lamar Park In Oxford. Undeterred, England passed the tryout with flying colors, and the rest, as they say, has been history.
"I had been up every morning because I would run in the morning throughout the school year," England said. "On that morning in October, I woke up and it was raining. It was seriously the only morning in Oxford that it had been raining that whole semester yet. I warmed up before Coach Dawson came over. I did a lap to warm up. She shows up. She wasn't 100 percent sure if I was going to show up, and then she comes up, and I'm there in the pouring rain. She could see that I was pretty determined by the fact that I was out there in the pouring rain ready to do this."
A swimmer for most of her life, the Cary, North Carolina, native began running cross country her senior year of high school. Wanting to go to a big Southeastern Conference school, she fell in love with Ole Miss once she stepped on campus. As a true freshman at Ole Miss last year, she missed the structure and competitiveness, so she gave cross country another try.
"With swimming, I got really burned out my junior year and I knew I didn't want to swim in college," England said. "I had always wanted to try running, so I tried it my senior year, and I liked it. Last year, I missed having a set schedule and I had so much free time and I missed being competitive, so then I decided to try to run cross country and I fell in love with it after that."
"Mary Alex has been a beacon of light for us," head coach Brian O'Neal said. "She shows up every day wanting to work hard and wanting to get better. She's a young lady who had been a swimmer for most of her life and decided to run, not just competitive athletics, but compete at a high level here in the Southeastern Conference. She has had nothing but success so far."
England started to practice with the team a week after her tryout and traveled to the SEC Cross Country Championships soon thereafter, where she competed at the 6,000-meter course in Gainesville, Florida.
In the spring, running in her first-ever competitive 10,000-meter race, England broke the school record and captured the event title at the Drake Relays. A week later, she won the 5,000-meter race at the LSU Invitational, the final tune-up before the SEC Championships, which will take place Thursday through Sunday in Lexington, Kentucky.
England, who ranks eighth in the SEC in the 10,000, will compete in the event on Friday, as well as the 5,000 on Sunday.
"It's very rare," said O'Neal of runners having such success with so little experience. "She's a rare person, in terms of the unique qualities she has -- unselfishness, willing to put in a lot of hard work and lot of hours of sacrifice, whether it's academically or athletically, and she wants to be the best for this team. She loves to wear the Red and Blue. She loves competing for Ole Miss and wants to help us be successful."
She credits her swimming background - specifically the structure and stamina - for her early success, as well as her relative newness to the sport.
"I'm still really naive to the sport," England said. "When we do track workouts and we're doing 400s, and someone will say, `You need to go this,' and it's something really fast, it doesn't faze me because I have no idea. I still see myself as having a lot of potential, so I'm really enjoying it."
"The biggest thing that most of us, as human beings, put on ourselves is expectations, or we're fearful of success," O'Neal said. "Mary Alex is not fearful of being successful. She wants to find out how good she can actually be."
Austin Miller is a writer and blogger for OleMissSports.com. He joined the staff in June 2013 after serving as sports editor of the Daily Mississippian. Follow him on Twitter @austinkmiller.
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