Senior Suzanne Dannheim became the second runner in women’s cross country program history to qualify for the NCAA Championship.
Following a seventh-place finish at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional race Friday, Dannheim earned an at-large bid to the national championship this weekend. She said it was “an honor” to qualify for the race, and looking back at the beginning of the year, she wasn’t sure she would push this far into the postseason.
“A lot of this season my success has come from just believing in myself and believing that I can win and believing that I can be great,” Dannheim said. “So I’m just coming at this weekend with the attitude that I come at every other race, which is to win.”
The NCAA Championships are uncharted waters for the Colonials, as only Megan Hogan had previously qualified for the race in 2009 and 2010. Dannheim will be the first Colonial in eight years to compete at the national competition.
Dannheim started the season strong and never looked back. She opened her campaign with a third-place finish at the Mount St. Mary’s Duals Aug. 30 before climbing the podium at the Mason Invitational Sept. 13. She notched her first top finish in her career at the race, shaving two seconds off her previous performance.
Her only finish outside the top 10 came at the Paul Short Run Oct. 5. Dannheim secured a No. 16 finish in the 6 kilometer among a field of 365 runners and nabbed a personal record in the event with a time of 20:20.8.
At the Princeton Invitational Oct. 19, Dannheim ran a 21:09.2 in the 6-kilometer race. She snatched her second No. 1 finish on the podium at the following competition.
Dannheim said her training throughout the season was new to her, as she pushed herself hard from August through October. But now she is allowing November to “run its course” and is relying on the high levels of fitness she built up to sustain her through the postseason, she said.
“My mindset definitely is a little bit warped just because we taper for a lot longer than I’m used to,” Dannheim said. “For the past month, really, I’ve been going slightly easier than I normally would, which is definitely a weird experience.”
With just 13 members on the women’s cross country squad this season, Dannheim said the team built a strong culture. She added that the support of her teammates, especially junior Margaret Coogan, helped build her confidence throughout the season.
“My teammates have been there to support me through all the times where I am running with them and all the times where I’m running by myself or I’m running at a different pace,” she said. “And they have supported me through every step of that.”
The regular season led up to the Atlantic 10 Championship Nov. 2, where the Colonials were slotted to finish No. 9 overall. Dannheim and the women’s team dashed past the competition and earned a second-place finish, the highest in program history. Dannheim placed second overall, making it onto the podium for the first time and six spots ahead of last year’s eighth-place finish.
Head coach Terry Weir said Dannheim played a large part in the team’s second-place finish at the A-10 Championship, motivating her teammates and leading by example.
“A lot of it has to do with Suzanne being the team captain and leading the way,” Weir said. “But it’s also the other girls seeing some of that work ethic and saw how she got better and they decided to do the same thing.”
The second-place finish propelled the team into the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional Nov. 15. The team continued to rewrite history, placing a program-high ninth. With a time of 20:24.6 and a seventh-place finish, Dannheim punched her ticket to the NCAA Championships.
Weir said Dannheim joined the program as a walk-on in her freshman year at GW. He added that she held her own in her first season with the team but kicked her running up a notch toward the end of her sophomore season.
“She just attacked getting in shape and hitting the weight room and doing all of the things she needed to do to stay healthy and to keep training at a high level,” Weir said. “She continued to do that the last couple years. Every year, she continues to get better and better.”
Dannheim is back in action Saturday at the NCAA Championship in Terre Haute, Ind. The race begins at 11:15 a.m.
Belle Long contributed reporting.