Athletics: Nagel returns to NZ with big ambitions

By Steve Landells

Photo / Jo Murray
Photo / Jo Murray

New Zealand Cross Country and Road champion Laura Nagel is back in her homeland and flying after six years in the US. Laura tells Steve Landells about her athletics journey and wide-ranging ambitions for the future.

For an athlete with running in her soul since the age of 13, it is hard to comprehend that Laura Nagel once used to "hate" running.

But back as an intermediate school student in her native Napier, she admits there was nothing less appealing.

"The thought of going for a run was not fun, she says with her trademark laugh. "I only really ran it for the house points."

Yet everything was to changed when she moved up to Taradale High School, when she smashed the school 3000m record by a minute at a school sports day.

Local coach Mick Cull was impressed and asked her if she wanted to join the Napier Harriers Club.

Curious to see how much better she could become, Laura agreed and she was quickly hooked.

"I really had no clue at all that I had broken the record," she says of that school 3000m outing. "As soon as I joined the group I enjoyed the social aspect of training in the group and after some early successes, it went from there."

Laura quickly developed into one of the leading schoolgirl distance runners in her age group. She secured road race wins at the New Zealand Secondary Schools' Championships. A representative badminton player, she quit the racquet sport aged 15 to fully focus on running and praises the huge influence Cull played in her early development.

"Mick is one of the most selfless people I've ever met," she adds. "He would be out there coaching every day. He has a huge knowledge and over time he almost became a second dad to me."

Determined to expand her running horizons, towards the end of her time at Taradale High School she explored the possibility of picking up a US scholarship.

Keen to hear from those who had experienced the US collegiate system, Laura contacted Kiwi distance runner Kim Smith, a graduate of Providence College, and she was not unsurprised by the New Zealand marathon record holder's response.

"Kim said to me, I am biased but I would recommend Providence (College in Rhode Island), says Laura. "I had a good feeling about Providence, and it all turned out perfectly."

Accepted by the Rhode Island university she started her student life there in August 2010, yet a month before the teenager from the Hawkes Bay had the biggest date of her athletics career so far, competing in the 3000m at the 2010 World Junior Championships in Moncton, Canada.

Working three jobs in the lead up to the event and with the emotional burden of leaving her homeland behind to start a new North American adventure, left the Kiwi slightly burnt out in Moncton. She still managed to set a PB by around 1.5 seconds and finished 16th in the 3000m, but did not meet her expectations.

Nonetheless, she has fond memories of her first taste of competing in a global competition.

"It was definitely inspirational," she says. "It was an awesome Kiwi team to be a part of - a team which included Tom Walsh and Angie Petty."

She adapted quickly at Providence describing her early memories of US collegiate life as like "being in a movie." Under the wily coaching of leading Irish coach Ray Treacy who also coaches Kim Smith as well as US 10,000m record holder Molly Huddle, she initially found the uber-competitive collegiate scene tough.

In her first US summer track season in 2011 she set PB's of 4:23.23 for the 1500m and 9:25.78 for the 3000m, but such was the quality of opposition she found the task of qualifying from the regional championships beyond her.

"In one race I remember thinking, I can either take this race out fast and then someone is going to outkick me or everybody is going to outkick me anyway," she adds of the formidable nature of her rivals.

Acknowledging she did not possess the raw speed for 1500m, Treacy decided to move Laura up in distance to focus more on the 5000m.

The following season the switch seemed to work. Enjoying training regularly with quality athletes brought the best out in her and in late-2012 she placed a highly respectable 35th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Yet as much as she was proud to place top 40 and claim All American status her chief accomplishment was helping Providence - one of the leading distance running colleges in the US - claim silver in the team competition.

"It brought us so much closer (as a group)," she explains. "That feeling of team doesn't happen quite in the same way in the New Zealand athletics scene."

Twelve months later and now team captain, Laura, who placed 27th individually led Providence to team success at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana - a moment she describes as her career highlight.

'Every runner is different and not everyone gets on," she says. "My job (as team captain) was to manage those relationships and make sure everyone wanted to be a part of that team. It was such a fun experience. I still talk to those girls regularly. Some of them are my closest friends."

During the indoor season of 2014, Laura achieved one of the most impressive individual performances of her career by running a hugely impressive breakthrough 3000m indoor PB of 9:01.35 in Boston.

Unfortunately, unable to back up that performance for the remainder of the indoor season she at least finished her 2014 campaign with a respectable 11th place finish in the 5000m final at the NCAA Championships in Eugene - a venue she believes is like no other in terms of its thumping atmosphere.

After graduating with a degree in marketing, she decided to stay on for an additional two more years at Providence to compete a masters degree in Business Administration. In 2015, under Tracey's guidance, she stepped up to tackle the 10,000m with mixed results - placing 16th in the 25-lap race at the NCAA Championships.

Long term believing her future may lie on the roads in the half-marathon and marathon, she finally returned home to New Zealand in June. Delighted to be back after six years away and looking forward to experiencing her first Hawkes Bay summer since 2009-10 the vivacious distance runner continues to be coached long-distance by Treacy and believes the canny Irishman is the best person to guide her career.

"I've never seen anyone quite able to predict what I can do quite like Ray," she says. "He is right 99 per cent of the time. I have a really good relationship with him and I regularly used to just go up to his office for a general chat. He's very low key, but that's just the way I like it."

Training between 120-130km per week and re-connecting once more with the fantastic training environment in the Napier region, the recently appointed Marketing and Communications Advisor at Sport Hawkes Bay is clearly in great form, following her double success in both the New Zealand Cross Country and Road Championships over the past month.

Yet although she is proud of her recent success, she has some bigger running goals which she hopes to fulfil

"I just want to keep improving, run faster and try to make the World Championships in London and Commonwealth Games in Australia," says Laura, who has recently started coaching a small group of high school runners in the area. "The Olympic Games is also something I'd love to do to."

So having overcome her initial dislike of long distance runner, why does the 24-year love running so much?

"Oh, I just love that feeling of being fit, healthy and strong. You can't beat it," she says.

- NZ Herald

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