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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
<p><span id="docs-internal-guid-5eddfedf-7fff-cb91-6a0c-49c1990a87a2"><span>Senior Jessica Pascoe made program history as the first women's runner to notch four title wins in the first four meets of a season.</span></span></p>

Senior Jessica Pascoe made program history as the first women's runner to notch four title wins in the first four meets of a season.

“I kind of just dropped the bomb on them one night at dinner, and I was like, ‘I want to go to America.’”

That is how Australian Jessica Pascoe broke the news to her parents. 

That was before she broke UF’s records in the women’s 6K, UF Golf Course 5K and the SEC Championships 6K. And it was about three years before she had the highest finish in Florida history at the NCAA Championships.

It was about four years before Pascoe, now a senior, was positioned to cement herself as one of the greatest athletes in Florida’s history.

* * *

Pascoe has always been on the move. 

Growing up in the small town of Forbes, New South Wales, Australia, with a population of just over 8,000 people, she kept herself busy. 

Pascoe was always athletic, although she played sports you’ve probably never heard of, including netball (basically basketball without the backboard) and touch football (essentially touch rugby).

Her parents had busy schedules, but she was independent, so she ran to these various sporting locations.

Since Pascoe was already running everywhere, she realized her legs could be used for more than just a primary mode of transportation. She decided to train in distance running.

“Running, I found, was one thing I could do by myself when I wanted,” Pascoe said.  “And it was all on me and how far I took it.”

Her solitude manifested into a budding cross country career.

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A career good enough to win the 2016 Australian Junior Cross Country Championship and to garner attention from Division I programs in the United States.

Like any other world-class athlete being recruited, coaches were reaching out to Pascoe via social media. She was on the fence at first and found herself wondering why these coaches (or “middle-aged men,” as she put it) were messaging her on Facebook, trying to get her to travel across the world.

Pascoe thought these messages were spam, as she was not familiar with the recruiting process.

Regardless, the messages kept coming.

But only one offer stood out: the one from the University of Florida. Not because of the Gators logo. Not because of the lore that surrounded the Swamp. And not because of the particular “middle-aged man” that sent the offer.

It was the program’s history with a certain Australian runner.

Genevieve Gregson (née LaCaze), a two-time Olympian and Queensland, Australia, native is one of UF’s greatest cross country runners after her time with the program from 2009 to 2012.

The fact that the same school that Gregson ran for was reaching out to Pascoe was monumental. Gregson showed Pascoe it was possible, but now it was up to her to run in those shoes, and if she was lucky, run a little further. 

“(Gregson) was one of the main reasons I came to Florida,” Pascoe said.

Another was opportunity. 

Australia does not have any collegiate athletics, leading many of its athletes to seek a path through the NCAA. Pascoe’s teammate and fellow Australian sophomore Imogen Barrett didn’t hold back on why so many Australians choose the route of competing in the U.S.

“The sports in Australia are actually, if I’m being honest, pretty pathetic, especially for running,” she said.

After a quick visit to Gainesville in the middle of the 2015 cross country season, Pascoe was blown away by what she saw: Trainers, state-of-the-art facilities and an experienced coaching staff was much more than the 18-year-old had ever had back home.

* * *

She committed to UF and joined the program in the fall of 2016. The adjustment was hard.

Leaving her friends and family behind while acclimating to a new school and country proved difficult. 

Her parents and grandparents were always near in the closely knit community of Forbes. But now, they were an entire world away.

But the battles she was fighting weren’t just mental. They were physical, too.

Pascoe has suffered many injuries over her four-year career. But as far as the details of those injuries go, it’s anyone’s guess.

She doesn’t like going into the specifics when in the public eye. Pascoe worries her opposition will use that information against her.

The guarded competitor takes extra precautions to combat those injuries.

Now, she finds herself in the training room before and after every practice to stretch, and receive a combination of acupuncture and massage therapy in order to keep her body in check for the estimated 140 kilometers she runs in any given week.

That’s a little over 86 miles, or the distance from Orlando to Tampa.

It’s what she has to do to mitigate the damage she has already sustained. That damage held her back during her first two seasons.

It wasn’t until her junior year that she hit her stride. A stride that included her 2018 SEC Women’s Runner of the Year title and 32nd-place finish at the NCAA Championships.

Pascoe led her team to a 16th-place finish at NCAAs, the third-best in Florida history and its first NCAA Championships appearance since 2012.

Pascoe’s work ethic and style of running have become a source of pride for the Gators. Assistant coach Chris Solinsky described the combination as a perfect storm.

“She has the balance between power and finesse that every coach looks for,” Solinsky said. “She’s willing to go to some dark places when it comes to suffering within a race and within practice.”

Solinsky was alluding to Pascoe’s conviction to endure the grueling physical demands of distance running and her overcoming countless injuries over the years.

“I just love the challenge, I love to dig as deep as I can and get the most out of myself,” Pascoe said. “I love the hurt. Those are my favorite workouts, when I’m absolutely destroyed.”

* * *

Pascoe’s attitude, work ethic and drive haven’t gone unnoticed by her teammates.

Whatever she says goes — even though she doesn’t say much.

Junior Payton Capes-Davis transferred to Florida from Bucknell over the summer and was quick to pick up on the team’s dynamic.

Capes-Davis described Pascoe as a “show don’t tell” type of leader and, like the rest of the women on the team, she follows Pascoe.

“If Jess starts drills, we all start drills,” Capes-Davis said. “If Jess starts to warm-up… alright, maybe we don’t start to warm up because she’s running a lot faster.”

Redshirt junior Sophie Ebihara was in the same recruiting class as Pascoe and has seen first-hand how she has transformed herself.

“I’ve never met anyone so driven,” Ebihara said. “She will absolutely put in the work no matter the day, no matter the hour, no matter how she’s feeling, she knows to be exceptional she has to put in the constant work.”

Capes-Davis compared Pascoe’s drive to a workhorse and her personality to an oyster.

Pascoe, herself, admitted her shell is hard to break through at first. Whenever the mention of her goals or accolades are brought up, she has a knack for changing the subject, usually by breaking eye contact or nervously laughing so that she can talk about her teammates some more.

In training, it’s more of the same. She’s ambivalent toward material accomplishments.  She has other things on her mind besides records.

In typical early-20s fashion, Pascoe doesn’t exactly know what she’s going to do after she walks across the stage in May with her bachelor’s degree in health education and behavior.

“I’m going to see what I can do this year and hopefully set myself up for next year and years beyond,” Pascoe said. “I’d love to stay in the sport, whether that’s still competing, finding a job in this field … I don’t think I could let this sport entirely go.”

When asked if she was going to stay in the U.S or go home, Pascoe did not have an answer.

“Who knows when I’ll decide?”

Solinsky has been privy to all of Pascoe’s strides over the years and he believes that UF is not the last stop for her running career.

“She’s somebody that is on the trajectory, as long as she keeps her head on straight, she’s looking at a long career after her time here at the University of Florida.”

This body of work has separated her from her peers on the women’s team. When Pascoe started running back in Australia, she was on her own. But collegiate cross country is a team sport, and it is imperative to run as a pack when competing and training.

This has proved difficult for the rest of the women’s team which, quite frankly, can’t keep up.

Since the summer, Pascoe has mostly trained with the men’s team so that she does not have to hold back in order to stay with the pack.

Even Solinsky admitted that Pascoe does more than just hold her own with her male counterparts.

“She gives them a run for their money,” he said.

The gap between her and the rest of the women on the team was apparent at Florida’s lone home meet of the season, where Pascoe finished first in the women’s 5K by a margin of 58 seconds.

Let that sink in.

She was high-fiving her teammates to pass the time as she waited for the next runner at the finish line.

Pure dominance.

The Mountain Dew Invitational was the first meet of her senior season. In her four meets of the 2019 season, she’s known nothing but gold, finishing first in all of them.

She is the first women’s runner to win her first four meets of the season in Florida history (it could have been five for the season sweep, but she did not participate in the UNF Invitational to start the year).

* * *

In a typical 5K, runners can’t go all-out the whole way. If they try, they will burn themselves out too early. Because of this, they pace themselves early in the race, preserving their energy until the end.

Pascoe has paced herself this season, holding back until that final kilometer, where she’ll empty the tank and go for gold. That final kilometer is the postseason, and it’s finally here. 

She’s saving her energy — at least, as best as she knows how. She has dialed back her regimen to just 120 kilometers a week (only the distance from Tampa to Kissimmee) so that she is fully rested for what lies ahead: the SEC Championships.

Pascoe and the Gators will start their postseason Friday at 9 a.m. in Lexington, Kentucky.

It may be the site of another historic meet for Pascoe, as she begins to empty the tank and tries to be the first to cross the finish line for an unprecedented fifth time in a row.

However, No. 1 Arkansas will chase her down.

Now, on her last lap with the Florida cross country team, Pascoe has conquered bigger foes and outrun scarier demons than the Razorbacks.

“I’ve overcome enough that I’m not afraid of anything anymore,” Pascoe said. “If I can get through what I’ve been through, I can handle anything.”

Follow Joseph Salvador on Twitter @JSalvadorSports. Contact him at jsalvador@alligator.org 

Senior Jessica Pascoe made program history as the first women's runner to notch four title wins in the first four meets of a season.

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