Freshman Jessica Harris has shown perseverance and confidence in her record-breaking freshman season.

Irish Extra: Harris Thriving in Eventful Rookie Track Season

Feb. 23, 2015

There are freshman moments for University of Notre Dame middle distance runner Jessica Harris, to be sure.

At Saturday’s Alex Wilson Invitational, Harris was caught off guard by the jostling and bumping that was part of the 1,200-meter leg of the distance medley relay.

High school running was much more polite.

And then there was the whole finish-line business Saturday during the 1,200.

“I had some confusion where the race was actually ending,” Harris admitted. “I thought it ended 100 meters shorter than it actually did.”

There are also the moments that generate All-America talk around Harris.

A school record in the 600 (1:31.98).

A school record in the 800 (2:06.16).

A school record in the 1,000 (2:46.47).

“I think we’ve seen the tip of the iceberg with Jessica,” Notre Dame middle distance coach Sean Carlson said. “She’s just getting started, and she’s only going to get better.”

There also have been moments that try the soul.

One week after Harris arrived on campus last August, her mother, Cookie, passed away.

“I went home and then came back and hopped right back into training,” Harris said. “The resources at Notre Dame were there, helping me emotionally. I have a great coaching staff that has always been there to help me. Everybody, my dorm friends, my rectors, my RAs (resident assistants) . . . they’ve all been here to support me.”

Harris has channeled her emotions into her running.

“I run for my mom,” Harris said. “There are some races where afterward all I want to do is call home and tell her how I did. But she’s seeing everything that is going on. It helps to think of her. I’m running for my whole family. It’s good.”

Carlson said Harris has shown great strength in dealing with the loss of her mother.

“I think that allowed her to really commit to something and focus on something and try to make her mother proud,” Carlson said. “When something big like that happens in your life, you either go in a hole or you step up and she’s really stepped up. I couldn’t be prouder of her. She’s one of the toughest young ladies I’ve ever met.”

Harris didn’t start running competitively until she attended high school at Mount de Sales at Cockeysville, Maryland.

“I’ve embraced running,” Harris said. “There are days that I hate it, there are days that I love it.

“I found what I’m good at. I have to credit the training with any success I’ve had. We’ve been training all fall. I have excellent training partners. We’re all improving. The 800 girls train together so well. I’ve gotten really good coaching. Sean has done a great job with us.”

Emily Frydrych, a senior distance runner, said freshmen face tough challenges, yet Harris has endured.

“It’s not easy for a freshman, and Jessica has done an amazing job,” Frydrych said. “All fall she trained with the 800 group. They were just training and not competing, and we all saw they were running well. We were excited to see her race at (the Blue & Gold Invitational), and she blew away the 1,000 record. She hasn’t slowed down from there.

“There are so many changes you have to deal with when you come in as a freshman. There’s a different lifestyle, you’re living in a dorm, you’re training differently, your classes are different, your friends are different. For her to come in and excel so much is amazing. It has been really impressive that she’s thrived that well.”

Harris will run in the open 800 in the Atlantic Coast Conference indoor track championships Feb. 26-28. There she will run into Natoya Goule, who won the indoor and outdoor 800 national titles for LSU and before transferring to Clemson. Harris and her Irish teammates are expected to contend for All-America status in the distance medley relay at the NCAA indoor track championships.

“You can see it in the whole women’s middle distance group, they’re all just getting better,” Carlson said. “They’re getting better every week. They all build off each other. Jessica is a big part of that.”

According to Carlson, Harris has the character to carve out a brilliant career at Notre Dame.

“The best words to describe Jess Harris are tough and confident,” Carlson said. “That’s a big thing as a freshman, to have that confidence, to not be afraid of anybody and run with the front of the race, no matter who is in it. Those are the things that will take her far. She’s a really tough kid and she’s got confidence in herself.”

– by Curt Rallo, special correspondent