Making a change halfway through your college career is a big decision. But for cross country runner Kristen Smith, it was a move back in a sense.
"My senior year of high school, I actually had verbally committed to Vanderbilt after my visit, but decided I wanted to stay close to home and retracted to sign at Michigan State," Smith said. "Thankfully Coach Keith and Coach Riley were just as receptive and welcoming to the possibility of me joining their team as they had been the first time around."
Fresh off a Big 10 Championship, she joined the Vanderbilt team this past year as a transfer from Michigan State, becoming a key part of a close team as they worked their way from a barely-talked-about program to an SEC Champion, and a sixth place finish at the NCAA Championships.
"(At Michigan State), the program had such a long history behind it that winning the conference or making nationals wasn't that big of a deal. Here, it was a first, and because everyone felt so excited, I felt more excited," she said.
Smith finished fifth for the Commodores at the SEC meet (ninth overall), helping cement the Commodores' first place finish in impressive fashion. With all five runners finishing in the Top 10, Vanderbilt's score of 30 points was less than half of second-place Arkansas (61). A perfect score would total 15 points.
"After I crossed the line I said, `I've never finished so hard in my life,'" Smith said. "I think most of us gave a little more in that race than we thought we had because everyone wanted us to win so badly."
Smith got her first taste of competing as a Commodore at the Roy Griak Invitational, where she ran against her old teammates for the first time.
"Honestly, it was extremely strange," she said. "Michigan State also was in that race, so my former teammates were now my competitors. But I got over it. We still have a good rapport and have kept up with each others' progress throughout the season. After big races like Nationals we sought each other out and congratulated each other at the finish."
She would meet them again at the Wisconsin-adidas Invitational two weeks later--where Vanderbilt first broke into the national conversation by beating 19 Top-30 ranked teams--and again at the Nationals.
Her new team, however, made her feel right at home and made the adjustment to wearing black and gold easier.
"I had worried I would have a hard time fitting in on the team; the South is a bit of a culture shock
coming down from the Midwest," Smith said. But her worries were unfounded. "After I became accustomed to the constant influx of hugs, it wasn't so bad. This group of girls is amazing, and I couldn't have had an easier time adjusting."
Smith, now an ingrained part of this history-making team, has high hopes for the future.
"Most people don't realize how much time, hard work and concentration it takes," she said, pointing to her teammates' many accomplishments. "Next year I'm hoping we will have a few more of those, and also find a Top-4 team finish (at Nationals), which earns a place on the podium."