Sam Ekstrom-Staff Writer
Four years ago, Lauren Opp wasn’t even sure she wanted to run cross country at the college level.
Now a 20-year-old junior at Dordt, Opp is poised for a monumental finish to her conference season and the ensuing national championships.
“I didn’t start running until freshman year of high school, and that was only in order to get in shape for basketball,” said Opp.
Her decision to stick with cross country seems to be the right one.
It’s been a rapid rise to the top for Opp, who was the first Dordt finisher in each of the team’s first four races this fall. All of her finishing times were ahead of last year’s pace.
“I didn’t expect to feel this good after the summer of training that I had,” said Opp.
The Ohio native spent six weeks over the summer in rural Uganda performing mission work with Africa Inland Mission. While there, she helped at a rehab clinic for disabled children, developed Bible studies and worship events for the community and built relationships with the various people groups.
Yes, she also found time to run.
“I was actually able to run almost every day except three days,” said Opp. “Another girl on the team loved running, too, so that was a major blessing.”
It’s impressive that Opp has begun the year with the best times she’s ever had. It’s even more impressive when one considers the high bar she set in 2012.
As a sophomore, Opp paced the Defenders’ team in five of seven races, including the GPAC Championships, where she placed third, and the NAIA Championships, where she finished 29th nationally.
Most importantly to Opp, Dordt won the GPAC team title and secured a top-10 NAIA finish at nationals. The individual numbers are secondary, in her mind.
“I don’t care how well I do individually, but ultimately, if I do better individually, the team will do better, and I want to be a contributing part on the team,” Opp said.
Junior teammate Renee Buikema complimented Opp’s team-first attitude and work ethic.
“It’s cool to see how supportive she is of everyone,” said Buikema. “Lauren is one of the most hardworking people I know in this whole entire world. It’s really awesome for the rest of us on the team. It really motivates us as well.”
Head coach Greg Van Dyke, named the GPAC Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year in 2012, understands better than anybody the value of Lauren’s selfless leadership.
“Lauren is a great teammate because she genuinely cares about others,” said Van Dyke. “You rarely hear her talking about herself because she wants to know what is going on in her teammates’ lives.”
Good leaders are able to lead by example, which Opp does routinely does on the course, having now been Dordt’s top runner in eight of the last 11 races.
So what makes the 5-foot-2 Opp such a speedy racer?
“With running, a big thing is cadence,” said Opp. “Having a higher number of steps rather than a longer stride – it’s more energy efficient. That is a benefit of having shorter strides; you naturally have better cadence.”
Sounds easier said than done to those who can’t put in 50-mile training weeks.
It’s second nature for Opp.
The Defenders will have one last meet in Yankton, S.D. before competing in the conference championship Nov. 9.
As the big meets get closer, Opp and the women’s cross country team keep marching to the proper cadence, looking to defend their conference crown.