Competing for the Dalhousie University Tigers women’s cross-country team for a second year, Jessica Needham has improved to become a valuable racer in the 2019 season. She ran to an eighth place finish at the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) championship on Oct. 26.
After a 19th place AUS finish last year, she worked in the off-season to become a stronger runner both physically and mentally.
But her cross-country journey started way before. In high school, she started running in Grade 9.
“I had a really great coach,” says Needham. “She was my role model all through high school and it was her presence and her influence that got me into the sport.”
Needham caught a passion for running that hasn’t faded. Before she joined the Tigers, she studied at Carleton University. She didn’t compete at the varsity level because Carleton doesn’t have a varsity cross-country program, but she ran for two years for their competitive club team that competes in the Réseau Sport Etudes Québec (RSEQ).
After that, Needham came to Dal, where she is now in first year of a master’s degree in environmental science with a focus on road ecology and ecological connectivity.
Last season, her 19th place AUS finish helped the Tigers to clinch their sixth consecutive AUS title, and she then competed at the U Sports national championship and came 131st.
This year, Needham took it upon herself to work hard in the offseason and it paid off with a top 10 AUS finish and Dal’s seventh conference championship in a row for women’s cross-country.
“The biggest thing for me was taking care of myself outside of practices and being consistent about it,” she says.
Head coach Rich Lehman says that Needham’s improvement this year is the result of hard work, but improved times have always been within her potential.
“The summer she put together this year, [she] didn’t necessarily get the race results to go along together and that’s why this eighth place seems to be out of nowhere,” says Lehman. “But what we saw in training [is] that she can race at this level. She just timed it so that she had the race of her life on the day that mattered most.”
It’s not only fitness or athleticism that plays a factor in cross-country.
“The question was how much pain she was willing to go through and a couple of weeks ago she answered it with ‘a lot,’” says Lehman of the AUS race.
Although cross-country is an individual sport, scores are calculated based on team performance. When it comes to team play, Needham is all in.
“When I’m racing for myself, it’s one thing to go get a time, but when I’m racing for my team there just so much more drive for me to push and I’m motivated by that,” she says.
Needham has been a runner for a long time, but she didn’t start competing at the varsity level until recently. This affects her confidence sometimes.
“It’s been a learning process and I’m getting better,” says Needham. “It’s just the lack of experience, but it’s increasing being at this level of competition.”
With improving confidence and her consistent work in training, Lehman says that Needham has the potential to become a top-30 runner in U Sports.
As of the time of writing, Needham and the Tigers are headed to Kingston for the U Sports national championship, where they hope to improve on last year’s ninth place result.
Dal’s men’s cross-country team will also compete in Kingston after they won the AUS championship for the second time in three years.