Kirsten Olling: From gymnast to lead runner
Most sixth graders don't start athletic programs at their middle school. Sophomore cross country runner Kirsten Olling is not most people.
It all started with a botched back handspring in the fifth grade, which completely fractured the ulna and radius in her forearm. Olling participated in gymnastics for the majority of her life up until that point.
As a result of the injury, Olling was nervous to return to gymnastics and looking for another outlet after her arm healed.
It was Olling’s father who first introduced her to cross country.
“He comes out into the living room with this butter container that is just full of cross country and track and field medals,” Olling said. “He was telling me all of the stories about all of them, and I was like, ‘This is pretty cool.’”
Olling expressed her newfound interest in running to her gym teacher, who began to help train her. The next year, when Olling was in sixth grade, she and her coach recruited some other runners, and together they started the Breckenridge Middle School Cross Country program.
Since then, Olling never looked back on her rise to success during her high school career from 2010 to 2013, including being crowned Michigan State Division IV Cross Country Champion each of her four years and earning a spot on Team Michigan at the Midwest Meet of Champions in 2013.
Her success continued in college as she was recruited by Arizona State, where she ran for one season. Olling participated in five races and placed 46th out of 230 runners at the NCAA West Regional 6K with a time of 21:18.
After a semester at ASU, Olling realized it was not the right fit. She reached out to Chippewa senior runner Kelly Schubert to get a sense of what cross country was like at Central Michigan after the Roy Griak Invitational in Minnesota, which both CMU and ASU participate in.
Schubert, who hails from Manistee, knew Olling through high school cross country and various road races where the pair competed against each other.
“She Facebook messaged me and asked how I like it here,” Shubert said. “I told her I loved it and asked her, ‘Why, are you thinking about transferring?’ and (Olling) said, ‘Yeah, I think I am.’”
After coming to CMU in January 2015, Olling noticed considerable differences from her time at ASU.
“I was at Arizona State and the girls there weren’t entirely what I expected,” Olling said. “The coach that I signed with actually ended up getting another job, so he left and then the girls’ attitudes completely changed. They were partying and drinking, and that’s not my style.”
After one semester in Mount Pleasant, Olling said she fits in well.
“The girls here (at Central Michigan) actually care about each other,” she said. “They actually want to work hard and they all have the same goals, the same drive for the sport.”
Head Coach Matt Kaczor believes that it was this sense of community that really drew Olling to Central Michigan as opposed to Michigan State, the other school the runner was looking at after deciding to transfer from ASU.
“I think that’s what she was looking for, that family setting. We’re smaller, and she knew a lot of the ladies that were here,” Kaczor said. “She was very comfortable making the decision because of that.”
So far this season, Olling has led the Chippewas in each of the races she has run. At the Jeff Drenth Memorial 5K on Sept. 4, Olling finished in second place overall with a time of 17:27. Olling ran a 22:37 and finished 40th at the Roy Griak Invitational 6K on Sept. 26.
“(Olling) has really solidified our group and where we are going,” Kaczor said. “She has really helped move this group in the right direction and next phase of where we want to go in terms of trying to be a conference contender, trying to remain in the top ten in the Great Lakes Region and trying to get to that next step of being a national qualifying team.”
The Chippewas are ranked third in the MAC and 11th in the Great Lakes Region.
As for personal goals, Olling said she hopes to make it to the NCAA Championships this year, and wants to break 21:00 for the 6K race. Her personal record is 21:11.
Olling is majoring in dietetics and minoring in family studies, with hopes of becoming a pediatric nutritionist, specifically helping children and adolescents dealing with major diseases such as diabetes or cancer.
“I’ve always been really fascinated with nutrition, because I have to monitor my own diet constantly, since as a runner, you do have to eat healthy. I’m used to doing that and I’ve learned to enjoy it,” Olling said. “I’ll watch documentaries on nutrition and dietetics, and working with kids is something I’ve always wanted to do. I do running clubs over the summer for little kids, so it really interests me to connect the two things I love the most.”