Cori Christensen Keeping Things Fun for KU Cross Country

Oct. 25, 2011

There’s one on every team. The person that is the joker of his or her squad. The class clown, if you will. The person that always cracks jokes before or after competition. The person that isn’t afraid to play pranks on the coaches. The person that keeps things loose for his or her teammates.

102511aad_618_5610740.jpegSenior Cori Christensen fills that vital role for the KU cross country team. While some may think an athlete with a sense of humor may compromise their professionalism when it comes to competition, in Christensen’s case, they couldn’t be more wrong, especially this season as she has become one of the Jayhawks’ top performers.

A daughter of two avid runners, Christensen has been living and breathing track and cross country since before she can remember. Her father, Robert, who ran collegiately at Wichita State, was her high school coach at Medicine Lodge High in tiny Medicine Lodge, Kan. The father-daughter coaching combo was evidently a good duo, because Coach Christensen led his daughter to seven class 3A state championships in track, including first-place finishes in the 1,600 meters her sophomore, junior and senior years.

“My dad was really there for me for my time entire time in high school,” said Christensen. “Both my parents have supported me throughout my running career and I owe a lot to them.”

She would attend Samford University, located just outside Birmingham, Ala., her freshman year, but found the program and the school hadn’t been what she was originally looking for.

As she looked for potential transfer options she noticed a familiar face had recently become the distance coach at Kansas, Michael Whittlesey. She had seen Whittlesey’s athletes at numerous track and field meets she had gone to as a girl and knew he had the reputation of making good runners into great ones.

“It worked out perfectly that Coach Whitt had gotten here when I decided to transfer,” explained Christensen. “I grew up as a huge fan of his and loved the idea of being coached by him and the rest of the KU staff.”

After her arrival in Lawrence, Christensen got out to a fast start, helping the women’s distance medley relay team to a sixth-place finish at the 2010 Indoor NCAA Championships and becoming an All-American in just her third month with KU track.

“Cori has done a great job ever since she’s arrived at KU,” said Whittlesey. “She came in right off the bat and really sparked our track program, taking that 800 and 1,000 meter role. She also became an All-American that first season, which was great.”

102511aad_618_4459117.jpegWhile Christensen quickly flourished on the track for the Jayhawks, it was on the cross country trails that presented the true challenge for her. She had been no slouch in high school, nabbing the state cross country runner-up spot three of her four years at Medicine Lodge. However, cross country is a whole new ballgame at the collegiate level and Christensen would have to find a way to achieve success for herself and more importantly, her team.

Her first season with KU cross country didn’t go exactly as she had hoped it would. She competed in just three meets for the Jayhawks in 2010 and had a difficult time making her way onto the travel squad. But while she may not have been leading her team on the trails, she started to realize there was a way she could assert herself as an important part of the team chemistry.

“I really started being more of a comedian and tried to lighten things up for everyone,” explained Christensen. “They always tell me, ‘if you want to be a clown, go join the circus.’ I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s just the way I am.”

With her newfound role on the team, Christensen began seeing better results in competition, not only with team’s success, but with her own performances as well. She recorded six top-three finishes during the 2011 indoor and outdoor track seasons, including an appearance in the NCAA West Regional 1,500-meter final.

She entered the summer of 2011 with a sky-high confidence in her abilities and was committed to make her final cross country season in Lawrence a success. So far, she has not disappointed her teammates or her coaches. This season she has already notched two top-10 finishes and has been among KU’s top-six finishers in each meet she has competed in.

“Her maturation as a cross country runner really has come this year,” said Whittlesey. “The work that’s she’s done over the summer and, more importantly, the mental work that she’s done has really helped her make a huge impact on the team this season.”

Even with an increased focus on her individual improvement, Christensen still finds time to play the team comedian. Keeping tension low before competition, helping teammates stay loose during practice and even pranks on her coaches are just few of the ways Christensen makes her presence known.

She recently got ahold of the team supply of zip-ties and promptly used them to tie the team’s shoes together as well as many of Coach Whittlesey’s belongings.Jabs back and forth between her and her coach, much like the zip-tie incident, are the makings of a strange coach-athlete relationship to some, but Whittlesey wouldn’t have it any other way.

102511aad_618_4157361.jpeg“It’s good because she really keeps things lively and keeps everyone loose,” said Whittlesey. “There’s no question, though, when it’s time to get to work she’s serious across the board. But she keeps things fun, too; that’s part of her leadership style.”

Christensen also credits much of her success to the strong bonds with her teammates, some of which she actually lives with in a nearby Lawrence home. The relationships she’s built over her last two seasons as a Jayhawk have created a family dynamic that she uses to her advantage.

“This year I’m running better in cross country than I ever have and I would attribute a lot of that to being in that close atmosphere,” Christensen said. “I always wanted to work hard for my teammates but now they’re like my family so there’s a little more incentive there.”

With her final collegiate cross country season just a few meets from completion, Christensen is beginning to evaluate the mark she wants to leave at KU; and while success is high on her agenda, how people assess her as a person is even more important.

“I just want to be remembered as the fun, light-hearted one,” Christensen concluded. “And when it came time to compete, I’d always show up.”

Christensen and the rest of the Jayhawks will be in action this Saturday when they take on their conference foes at the Big 12 Championships in College Station, Texas. The men’s 8K race is set to begin at 10 a.m., while Christensen and the other KU women will start their conference title chase in the 6K race at 11 a.m. For live updates and complete results log on to KU or follow on twitter at KUGameday.