Listen closely, run freely: Freshman Jolie Nguyen brings title to ‘Iolani

‘Iolani freshman Jolie Nguyen is a tennis player who ran to stay in shape. Now she is an ILH cross country champion. Paul Honda/Star-Advertiser.

Tennis is the apple of her eye, but Jolie Nguyen says there’s love for everything, including cross country.

The ‘Iolani freshman made the most of dry weather, listened to her coaches and captured the Interscholastic League of Honolulu girls individual championship on Saturday with a time of 13 minutes, 14.5 seconds at Mid- Pacific Institute.

Nguyen is a tennis player first. During the cross country season, which had been postponed from fall to winter, she prioritized training for tennis, a spring sport, and running, balancing the two interests.

“My mom (Wendy Do) was telling me, ‘You don’t find your passion. Your passion finds you.’ I don’t know where this running is going to take me. Tennis is still my first love,” Nguyen said. “Varsity (tennis) season just started. I just missed this week because I really wanted to focus on the meet.”

The protocol-driven format meant Nguyen and her teammates, girls and boys, ran together as a group separately from other teams. She edged Punahou sophomore Sasha Iizuka-Sheely (13:15.7) by one second.

‘Iolani ran the MPI course earlier in the regular season, before a championship meet was added to the schedule. On Saturday, ponding on the football field from a week’s worth of heavy rain led to a relocation of the starting line. Runners were now just a minute away from the upper campus hill, one that had to be traversed twice during the modified two-mile route.

“It gave me an advantage for sure, knowing which part would kill me,” Nguyen said.

This is where a young runner can get tangled up mentally. It turned into a rough go for other harriers who blasted rocket-style at the start and ran out of steam by the second swing to the hill. A real-life horror moment for many talented athletes unless they listen.

“All runners had difficulty on the second (time on the) hill. That is where the race was going to separate,” veteran runner and ‘Iolani assistant coach Jonathan Lyau said. “It was emphasized to our team to not go crazy on the first loop and that they needed to pace themselves and know their effort level on the first loop.”

That is easier said than done for elite female runners who have kept up with their male counterparts all season. The shorter distance, two miles, is part of that equation. So are flat and moderately hilly courses. This was different, and Nguyen’s inexperience could have been a challenge. But her listening ability mattered more than any other time.

“Sometimes in the sport of running, the less you know, the better. I always tell our girls, just run and have fun. Trust the process,” Raiders Coach Lauran Yard said. “When they start stressing out about times, getting to the mile at a certain time, yes, it’s important, but it’s more important that they’re running with a clear mind.”

‘Iolani freshman Jolie Nguyen pulled off a stunning performance to win the ILH girls cross country individual title on Saturday.

Nguyen negotiated the optics, the metrics and the emotions.

“My own message was to run, keep on going. I definitely paced myself. I knew if I just went all out on the first lap, I wouldn’t be able to finish the second one. Trying to close the gap with one of the boys made me go faster. I’m not sure who he was, but I just remember tailgating. I blink and they’re out of sight,” she said.

True enough, on the second time going uphill, near the picnic tables outside Mills Gymnasium, she was consistent and strong.

“What got the best of me is knowing that you having to do another loop after the first one, which is exhausting. That hill coming to the tennis court really pushed me. Running with the boys gave me incentive to go harder,” Nguyen said.

“It was definitely harder, but I just grew as a runner through the whole cross country season.”

Nguyen’s consistent pre-meet routine was also crucial. Perhaps, more so. It began with dinner.

“My mom made me pasta again, just a plain pasta with garlic and butter. She gives me one big serving. She also made me drink this vegetable soup that she makes so I won’t have inflammation with my muscles,” Nguyen said. “She puts a lot of love in her food.”

A good night’s rest and more fuel at breakfast.

“Oatmeal. It was with this, like, trail (mix) cereal thing my mom made from scratch and frozen strawberries with chia seeds. And a banana. One big bowl. My mom has an intuition of what to make,” she said.

Lyau, who passed the 100,000-mile mark recently, sees a bright future for Nguyen as a runner.

“Jolie is so raw at running and still has a lot to learn and improve as a runner. She’s such a happy-go-lucky type of person. I think that’s why she runs so well. She just runs freely and doesn’t seem to let anything bother her,” he said.

The comparison is apt.

“Jolie reminds me of former Hawaii Pacific University cross country All-Americans Polina Carlson (Babkina) and Lisa Blomme, who were both very good tennis players and became excellent runners,” Lyau said.

Communication among coaches is a major plus for ‘Iolani, along with Lyau’s eye sight. Nguyen had run for the middle school team, but hadn’t shown interest as freshman year began. Yard had some returning seniors on the girls squad, but in the midst of distance learning when the pandemic struck, momentum was difficult to build. The 2020 track and field season, along with other spring sports, was cut short.

“We started in June, doing everything virtually, but she wasn’t signed up at the time. I was talking to a few of the boys coaches, who are also distance coaches for track. Coach Matt (Imada) and Coach Jack (Kuo) said, ‘What about Jolie and Jaymie (Frith) and Maila (Healing)?’ I said, ‘I don’t know who those girls are.’”

Healing, a transfer from Niu Valley Middle School, didn’t run track at ‘Iolani. Frith did, but she was a sprinter. On Saturday, Frith ran a 13:43 and placed sixth overall. Healing took seventh with a time of 13:44. Both, like Nguyen, are freshmen. Their presence almost didn’t happen this season.

“Track was literally only a few weeks long. They had a meet at Moanalua,” Yard said. “Jolie ran an amazing race there. Jonathan said, ‘She runs all the time. I always see her running.’ I emailed the three of them and said, ‘Are you thinking about coming out for cross country?’”

They surely did. The girls team finished a fairly close second in the ILH to perennial champion Punahou. By the time the regular season began, there were 57 runners in the girls intermediate, junior varsity and varsity levels.

“They started coming out and we were like, ‘Woh. This is going to be amazing.’ We’re definitely lucky to have these young girls. The team we had is three ninth graders and four seniors,” Yard said.

Nguyen splurged after her victory. Sometimes, she rewards herself with a burrito or two. Maybe a protein shake.

“My mom gave me chocolate-covered gummy bears after the race,” she said.

Track and field is in season now.

“I think I’m doing track,” Nguyen said. “I just need a way to balance it with tennis.”


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