24: Lessard strengthens Hawkeye national chances

Sept. 23, 2009

24 Hawkeyes to Watch: M. Lessard

Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Wednesday, Aug. 12, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2009-10 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — It wouldn’t be a typical day for Megan Lessard without a cup of joe and a vigorous jog. Such is life for a thriving distance runner.

“Running is more than the act itself for me,” Lessard said. “It’s become a part of my day, just as having coffee in the morning would be considered part of my day. So running is something I have to do to feel accomplished, or my day isn’t complete.”

Lessard will provide a one-year boost to the University of Iowa cross country and track teams. She is entered in graduate school and has one year of athletic eligibility after receiving a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies from Columbia University.

“At the end of my cross country season (at Columbia), I took a look at all the schools that had done well at nationals and I was looking to go into public health, too,” Lessard said. “I tried to match up successful athletic programs with schools with good public health programs, and Iowa was at the top of the list.”

This is the third season in a row that the Hawkeyes have benefitted from a graduate student with one more season. In 2007-08 it was Sarah Henize (Miami of Ohio) and last year it was Sarah Spencer Perry (Grinnell College).

“In recruiting you look for high school talent, junior college talent and a new avenue is transfer talent,” said UI head coach Layne Anderson. “It’s a winning proposition for both parties. I’m always looking for people who want to advance their life. We’re in a position to help Megan accomplish some things academically and she’s in a position to help us continue to move forward. We’ll both benefit from this partnership.”

Anderson is in his seventh season as head women’s cross country coach for the Hawkeyes. Iowa has advanced to the NCAA National Championship each of the past three seasons and placed 24th a year ago after finishing 17th in 2006 and 10th in 2007. Three Hawkeyes — Diane Nukuri, Racheal Marchand and Meghan Armstrong — combined to earn five All-American awards since 2006. A runner from Iowa has finished in the top 10 individually at nationals from 2006-08.

“At the end of my cross country season (at Columbia), I took a look at all the schools that had done well at nationals and I was looking to go into public health, too. I tried to match up successful athletic programs with schools with good public health programs, and Iowa was at the top of the list.”
UI cross country runner
Megan Lessard

Lessard is a native of Manchester, N.H., where she was captain of the Manchester Central High School cross country and track teams as a senior. After competing three seasons collegiately, she graduated cum laude from Columbia, where she was an academic all-Ivy League selection and finished eighth at last season’s conference cross country championship.

As a team, Columbia was runner-up in the Ivy League, but Lessard was the lone Lion to advance to nationals. Lessard will enjoy a deeper support system at Iowa.

The Hawkeyes return five competitors that ran at nationals last November: seniors Fionna Fallon and Hannah Roeder, junior Amanda Hardesty and sophomores Brooke Eilers and Betsy Flood. That number increases to six when you throw in Lessard, who finished 58th with a 6-kilometer time of 20:53.9.

“Megan’s credentials speak for themselves,” Anderson said. “She quietly brings an additional component to our team that should help us get back to the NCAA meet. We feel like we’ve got another strong runner at the front, whether she’s our No. 1 or whether she’s No. 3 or 4. That is yet to be determined. Some of that is within her control and some of that is a by-product of how much better the girls around her get by having Megan on the team.”

Being the new kid on the block comes with the challenge of blending with a new circle of friends in a short amount of time.

“One of my anticipated challenges would be just becoming cohesive with the team,” Lessard said. “Bonds had already formed and I am here for a year, so I didn’t want to be seen as a temporary addition. I definitely want to make an impact on the program and make good connections with people and the girls on the team.”

A January recruiting visit by Lessard helped relieve any worries relating to connecting with her future teammates.

“I had a lot of fun on my recruiting trip and (the rest of the team) was really funny,” Lessard said. “We sat at Starbucks and talked for three hours. I felt it was a really good group and they’re going to be fun to run and work with.”

That initial reaction has carried over to life in Iowa City, where Lessard relocated in September.

“They’ve been wonderful,” she said of her Hawkeye teammates. “Everyone was totally welcoming. I feel a part of what is going to be a very close-knit group. They just want to run well and run fast, so it’s to their benefit to pull me into the fold and show me the ropes.”

In graduate school, Lessard will focus on public health with an emphasis on maternal, child, and family health. She completed intern work last summer in reproductive justice activism and would like to do continued outreach work in HIV prevention and advocacy. Lessard is considering the pursuit of a PhD in medical anthropology.

During her first meet for Iowa, Lessard placed sixth with a 3,000-meter time of 10:40.20 at the Hawkeye Invitational.

“I like wearing black, it’s a sharp color,” Lessard joked. “It was a first meet and I didn’t perform as well as I wanted. I have to realize I had been training as a 5K runner coming into the summer and I hadn’t done tons of speed work. So when I ran a 3K, it was a shock and it was a lot faster than I thought it would be. I had grand illusions of running my track time on the course and really blowing everyone away, but I wasn’t prepared to do that.”

The 3K is half the distance Division I runners compete at for regionals and nationals. During the track season, Lessard is projected to run anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000 meters. She owns career-best times of 4:23.04 in the 1,500, 4:46.6 in the mile, 9:25 in the 3K and 16:22 in the 5K.

Lessard spent the summer working at Bearskin Lodge in northern Minnesota on the Gunflint Trail. That experience helped her acclimate to the Midwest.

“There were a lot of people vacationing from Iowa, so I got to know the character of the people here,” she said. “I felt like I had already put down roots in this part of the country.”

So far everything about the Hawkeye state agrees with Lessard — everything but the delicious pastries.

“Amish donuts are so good, but I have to avoid them,” Lessard said with a smile. “They make me comatose.”