Oct. 28, 2011
At one point or another in our lives most people have probably taken the time to assemble a puzzle -- one piece at a time. No matter the size or difficulty of the puzzle, each one has the same elements -- corners, edges and middle pieces.
The members of the University of Michigan women's cross country team know all too well that in order to be successful, all runners must fit together like an intricate puzzle. As the 2011 Big Ten Championships near for the Wolverines squad, the pieces to that puzzle have been selected, now it's just a matter of how they all fit together.
The team set to compete in this year's Big Ten meet features nine harriers, including two seniors, three juniors and four freshmen (two redshirt and two true freshmen).
When you consider the true concept of a team, it's not always about where each member thinks she fits into the puzzle, but what their teammates feel they bring to the table.
Earlier in the week, the group sat down following a team workout to share their thoughts on what each member meant to the team. They were asked to sum their teammates up in three words or less and then had the opportunity to speak freely about one individual at a time.
We began with the veterans and worked our way to the rookies -- here's what they had to say about each piece of the puzzle.
Puzzle Piece #1: Fifth-year senior Danielle Tauro - "The Rock"
"When I think of mentally tough people, Danielle is number one. Her motivation and mental toughness are out of this world." - Lindsey Hilton
"Danielle is really good at making you want to be motivated to do all the small things. All the really small things Danielle has down pat." - Brook Handler
"I think it's people like Danielle that help you when races get hard because you know that there are people pushing and giving all they have. It makes you a better racer because you feel like you are debited to them and they also feel they are debited to you. It's important to have that person to mesh everyone together." - Jillian Smith
"I think this year I have felt more camaraderie than I've ever felt on a cross country team. Especially in a race with Danielle, I know that if I'm having a rough time I can lean on her for support to carry me through. I also know that I can help her too, so that's just a really nice feeling." - Taylor Pogue
Puzzle Piece #2: Senior Mary Grace Pellegrini - "The Go-Getter"
"It's nice to have Mary Grace on the team because by the time you're a senior, the class dwindles down to a very small amount of people and for you to be traveling with someone in your same class is impressive. I feel like we've had so much longevity and experience together. We've been traveling together since she was a freshman and I was a sophomore so it's really nice to have her with me -- I feel like we have that special bond. She's super ambitious so I feel that makes us want to strive to work harder. She's doing such great things with her life and if I could do half the things that she's accomplishing in her life, then I feel that I'll be really successful." - Danielle Tauro
"Mary Grace has been my training partner since I got to Michigan and I think that speaks volumes because we have this indescribable connection. We motivate each other and push each other every day." - Lindsey Hilton
"I really admire her attitude, not just about running, but about life in general." - Ellen Junewick
Puzzle Piece #3: Junior Rebecca Addison - "The Fire"
"She's a strong leader. She may not be as vocal, but she definitely leads by example. I think she's very much a team player. We know that if she's in a situation where there's someone else with her, that she's going to do that much more amazing because she feeds off the energy of her teammates really well." - Danielle Tauro
"I've noticed more this season that she will be the one in workouts that tells us to push the pace and keep it going." - Taylor Pogue
"Becca is usually the first one I talk to after races because she relates to how I am as a freshman -- it's similar to how she was freshman year. The transition was a lot for both of us coming off of successful senior seasons in high school." - Brook Handler
Puzzle Piece #4: Junior Lindsey Hilton - "The Reliable One"
"I think it's important to have people like Lindsey on the team because our lives can be crazy busy and stressful. It's nice to come to practice and be able to laugh a little because I feel like you need that in life. She makes things very enjoyable and makes the atmosphere here a lot better." - Jillian Smith
"She works really hard day in and day out. I remember last year watching Big Tens where she ran through a hamstring injury and I thought that was really impressive." - Megan Weschler
"You can tell that she just really cares about everyone on this team. She always wants to make sure that we're all doing well and is always that person that can lift our spirits on a bad day and knows the right things to say." - Danielle Tauro
Puzzle Piece #5: Junior Jillian Smith - "Tough as Nails"
"She is very modest. She is one of those people where if you saw her on campus, you wouldn't know that you were talking to one of the best runners in the country. She doesn't have an attitude about her, yet when she runs, she's a racer. It's really impressive the way she can turn over like that." - Mary Grace Pellegrini
"I have incredible amounts of faith in Jill during races. Even when she is hurting, I know it doesn't matter to her. I know she's going to push through and I look to her for that strength." - Lindsey Hilton
"She never ceases to amaze me with the things she's capable of doing. She's capable of doing so much and even though she seems nervous sometimes with the things she says, she is limitless. She is not constrained by her nerves. It's really great to see how her attitude can switch right when the gun goes off." - Danielle Tauro
Puzzle Piece #6: Sophomore/Freshman Taylor Pogue - "The Heart"
"She has stepped up so seamlessly. Even as a freshman she seemed like one of the upperclassmen. She stepped up so well and has such a mature attitude about everything. She has never complained about things or about the transition to the college level. She has improved so much more already from her freshman to sophomore year." - Danielle Tauro
"If I lost my leg, she would be the first person to say 'Here, take mine, take mine.'" - Lindsey Hilton
"I like to talk to her before races to calm me down and keep my mind off the race. We can kind of relate to each other because we are both in our first cross country seasons." - Megan Weschler
Puzzle Piece #7: Sophomore/Freshman Megan Weschler - "The Dark Horse"
"She's a hard worker and she's really improved this season. It's impressive to see how much time she's put in. It's evident that she has put in the work and it's good to see her being rewarded for that by competing well and racing well. She's been a very solid runner all season." - Mary Grace Pellegrini
"You can just tell that she cares so much about running. She's been like our secret weapon all season because she leads by example." Lindsey Hilton
"I think she gives a lot of the other freshmen hope because she just exploded after redshirting last year. She came in and dropped a minute in her first race in 100-degree weather." - Jillian Smith
Puzzle Piece #8: Freshman Brook Handler - "The Swiss Army Knife"
"She can be a really fierce competitor and I think we need that on this team. She can get really amped up about other competitors and I think it amps everyone else up too." - Danielle Tauro
"I admire how much she knows about running. She's so young yet she is a seasoned athlete." - Lindsey Hilton
"I didn't really feel like I could relate at all to Brook coming in as freshmen together. I wasn't that great in high school and hearing her name -- I just knew she was good at everything. She is smart and really fast and talented. I was kind of intimated, but after getting to know her, she's one of the most down to earth, modest people I've ever met. Going through this season together has made everything easier." - Ellen Junewick
Puzzle Piece #9: Freshman Ellen Junewick - "The Spark"
"She is someone that came in from freshman year of high school, and it's not that we didn't have high expectations for her, but she just came onto the scene and stepped up and surprised the team so much. She's limitless and we can continue to surpass our limits because we have someone like Ellen that is kind of defying the odds already as a freshman." - Danielle Tauro
"When I think of her, I think of the Energizer Bunny, she just never runs out of energy and it's very inspiring. She is someone who just has her stuff together -- in the classroom and obviously on the course and that is really impressive." - Lindsey Hilton
"It is such a hard transition to excel at the collegiate level the way she has. She's embraced the challenge." - Mary Grace Pellegrini
It is apparent that this group of young women knows it will take all nine runners to reach their goals and bring home a Big Ten title. As the team stood up to leave, junior Lindsey Hilton brought everyone together for a huddle and declared, "It's all about The Team, The Team, The Team!" -- she couldn't have said it any better.