Natalie Cooper’s top-50 finish at the NCAA Division 3 cross country nationals would be amazing even if it weren’t for the remarkable way she got there.
Her path to the top 50 makes the story even crazier.
Cooper was often injured during her running career at Moorestown High School. When she was healthy enough to train and race, she had success. But those moments were infrequent.
As a sophomore, she placed fourth in the Group 3 XC sectionals at Delsea with an 18:56, which put her ahead of some pretty accomplished runners, including future Meet of Champions winner Devin Grisbaum of Ocean City. She also ran an 11:17 for 3,200 meters that spring, which got her in the top 20 at Meet of Champs.
But injuries slowed her down as a junior and senior, and when she was healthy enough to race she was far off her pace as a sophomore.
But she never quit and never stopped running. And it paid off.
Cooper entered the College of New Jersey in the fall of 2015 and ran for the Lions, who count as one of their coaches former Rancocas Valley star Mike Walker. But she didn’t break into TCNJ’s top-seven as a freshman, and her season highlights take up all of three lines on the TCNJ web site.
Which brings us to this year. Cooper finally found herself healthy again and enjoyed an amazing season this year racing for TCNJ.
She ran a very strong 16th with 21:31 over 6K on the challenging Lehigh course at the Paul Short Invite. She took fifth in the Rowan Invite in 21:02. She easily won the New Jersey Athletic Conference race at Stockton. She ran sixth in a loaded race at the NCAA Division 3 Atlantic Regionals. She was named NJAC Runner of the Year.
It was a season nobody saw coming, including her coaches and Cooper herself.
And it all led to the NCAA Division 3 Nationals in Louisville, Ky.
There, over 6,000 meters at Tom Sawyer State Park, Cooper ran 21:29 to place 47th overall in a field of nearly 300 women. She was the 12th sophomore across the line and actually PR’d for 3,000 with a 10:19 along the way.
Cooper was actually in the top 20 until the final 400 meters, which says that with another year of solid training under her belt she’s a real threat to earn All-America status next year.
Her 47th-place finish is best by a TCNJ woman in nine years, since Martine McGrath, who ran scholastically at West Long Branch, placed 10th in the 2007 meet.
For any young runner out there struggling with injuries, Cooper’s story should be a terrific lesson in determination and persistence. If you keep going, don’t quit and believe in yourself, amazing things can happen!
Cooper, who ran for John Denning at Moorestown, will run the 3,000 and 5,000 in track, and if her XC season is any sign, she’s in store for a lot more success for the Lions this winter and spring.