Former University of Portland cross country and track runner Lauren LaRocco has been nominated for the NCAA Woman of the Year award. After being chosen by the West Coast Conference as their representative, the NCAA selected LaRocco as one of the top 30 candidates across all NCAA divisions for the award. The winner of the award will be announced Sunday, Oct. 20 at an awards dinner in Indianapolis, Indiana.
“It’s a really big honor,” LaRocco said. “I feel it’s just a nice way to cap off my five years at UP. I really put a lot of work into my athletics and my academics as well as service and leadership, and it was just nice for that to be recognized.”
LaRocco had a stellar career at UP, which included seven All-American selections and numerous broken records. She owns the best time in the 10,000-meter in program history (32 minutes, 47.30 seconds) from her fourth-place finish at the 2016 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. LaRocco also holds the second fastest time ever in the 5,000-meter (15:55) with a sixth-place finish at the same meet.
LaRocco finished 13th in the 6,000-meter at Nationals this past season at the 2018 NCAA Cross Country Championships, with a time of 20:05. It was the best finish at nationals in program history, good enough to earn All-American honors. She is the first women’s runner in UP history to earn two cross country All-Americans.
During her time at UP, LaRocco also excelled in the classroom. Graduating with a mechanical engineering degree and a Masters in biomedical engineering, she made the 2018 and 2019 USTFCCCA All-Academic Teams as well as the 2018 WCC All-Academic Team. She also earned All-Academic honors from the MPSF.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” women’s cross country head coach Ian Solof said about LaRocco’s nomination. “I was really excited for her. She was one of our all-time greatest runners and a great student so it makes perfect sense that she was nominated for all of this.”
LaRocco was also a two-time president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). She helped institute several changes during her time there, including a revamping of the We Are Portland awards — formerly known as the Wally’s— which are the athletic department’s annual award show that occurred this past March.
For LaRooco, she’ll remember the little moments best. She said what stood out to her were the meetings she had with fellow SAAC members, the team retreats and the attempts to engage with athletes across all sports.
“I really enjoyed the little things I did,” LaRocco said. “We went to the pumpkin patch with a bunch of athletes and that was really fun and just getting people to come to soccer and basketball games and stuff like that.”
LaRocco wasn’t always a stud runner. Solof and LaRocco both remember her not thriving as much in her first year on The Bluff.
“She was only about 75th at our regional meet, so nothing amazing by any means,” Solof said. “She just continued to really work hard and embrace the process, the training, and was able to really build herself into a great runner.”
LaRocco did this by studying the stronger runners and adjusting her training to keep up. LaRocco knew that focusing on her strengths would pay off in the long run.
“I ran really high mileage, like 90 to 100 miles a week, because I could do that and a lot of people couldn’t do that,” LaRocco said. “I really focused on a strength-based approach to training because that was what I was good and that seemed to work well for me.”
The result was her breaking those records and earning those top-10 finishes at both Regionals and Nationals. For LaRocco, the moment that stands out wasn’t any individual performance, but instead was the team’s 12th-place finish in the snow at Nationals last season. Though the weather wasn’t on their side, they still managed their best finish ever.
“I feel like we knew we were really good, but it was just kind of up and down with people having little injuries,” LaRocco said. “It was rewarding to see it all come together and everyone bring their best on the day when it mattered.”
But just because she graduated doesn’t mean she’s giving up on running. Her main goal now is to get ready for the Olympic Trials next summer in Eugene, Oregon.
She’s currently working with coach Orey Smith, who owns Specialized Timing, a company based in Boulder, Colorado that clocks races that range from 5K’s to marathons all across the state. LaRocco has been training with Smith while also helping him time races.
However, her training has hit a snag as she recovers from a foot injury sustained during the track season. LaRocco noticed pain in her foot starting in March but powered through it to run at regionals in May.
After running for most of the summer, LaRocco still had pain in her left foot that often flared up, making it harder for her train more intensely. After paying out of pocket for an MRI, it showed what she described as a healed stress fracture surrounded by lots of bone marrow edema.
LaRocco isn’t sure how the fracture healed itself or how she even got it in the first place. All she knows is that it’s kept her sidelined for the past four weeks. Until the trials, she’s focused on getting healthy.
“We tried to run through it a little bit and I’m kind of paying the price for that,” LaRocco said. “I’m not actually running right now. I’m doing a bit of cross-training and stuff, but once I’m fully healthy I’ll get back to running.”
Having a successful running career post-college doesn’t feel far-fetched for LaRocco, and she believes she has the support necessary to do it.
“I think it’s sustainable,” LaRocco said. “It’s not always easy and just having good friends or family to talk to and a good coach really helps.”
The last few months, and even the last five years, have challenged LaRocco. From balancing academics with athletics to dealing with injuries, LaRocco has worked hard to compete at a high level both in the classroom and on the track. In LaRocco’s eyes, the work isn’t bad if you love doing it. And she certainly has a passion for it.
“I think you have to really enjoy what you’re doing and just take it day by day,” LaRocco said. “Running’s really hard, but I absolutely love to run and to push myself, and engineering is really difficult but I love the challenge and working as a team to solve a problem. I just love it.”
Kyle Garcia is the sports editor for The Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.