SAINT LEO, Fla. - Tereza Novotna stepped onto the campus of Saint Leo University (SLU) for the first time as a student in early August and has already left her mark on the school's record book.
The freshman on the Lions women's cross country team has the two fastest times in a 5-kilometer race in program history. She ran an 18:39 in her collegiate debut at the Early Bird Invitational at the University of Tampa on Sept. 2, besting the previous record of 19:11 set last year by teammate Andrea Maxwell.
"I was happy, but I didn't perform anything special," Novotna said. "I didn't take it like it was something special. Hopefully next race I can do better."
After her first race, Novotna, a native of Opocno, Czech Republic, was selected as the Sunshine State Conference (SSC) Runner of the Week, the first SLU woman to earn the honor. The Early Bird was just a preview of what was to come.
Novotna broke her own record in the second race of the season at the University of South Florida Invitational on Sept. 9, posting an 18:06.83 and earning runner of the week honors again.
"She has more potential than she knows," said SLU coach Melissa Miller. "She has a lot of good opportunities that will open up for her if she keeps doing the best she can. What's going to take her further than her talent is her attitude. That's the key, and she has it. She has a passion for the sport."
Miller said she is very impressed with how easily Novotna has been able to adjust to moving to a new country.
"In the back of my mind I thought she was going to have to adapt to the culture for a year, but she hasn't had that transition," Miller said. "She's already adapted."
Novotna didn't have a lot of negative culture shock coming to Florida, but she did say there are a lot of differences from her homeland.
"Here everyone is more friendly and they want to get to know you," Novotna said. "The other thing is the heat is much more here, but in a good way. I like the weather. In the Czech Republic right now you can't run in shorts because it's too cold."
Novotna started running around age 6 in a sport called orienteering, which involves going through forested areas with a compass and map. Participants have to find checkpoints that are not in a straight line. Courses can range from 3-9 kilometers and the fastest participant wins.
"It's a completely different sport," Novotna said. "You start and finish alone. Plus you have to focus on the course and follow the compass, so you have to be prepared physically and mentally and have good map technique."
Novotna said running cross country is much easier for her because she can "just run." While the mental burden associated with orienteering is absent at SLU, she still had to learn how to pace herself on a 5K course.
In fact, the distance was completely foreign to Novotna as she approached the starting line at her first collegiate race.
"I wanted to perform well and stay with the leading group," Novotna said. "I just ran, and that was the first time I've run a 5K ever. We did different distances in training.
"During the run I was hurting because I'd never run that exact distance before. I was wondering what distance I chose," Novotna said with a laugh.
Miller said Novotna has also shown leadership as well as low times.
"I've noticed she encourages everyone," Miller said. "She asks how you're doing and are you OK today. It's a good chemistry on the team, and Tereza contributes to that. She's a very special person."
Novotna is currently the No. 1 individual runner in the South Region and fifth nationally in Division II. SLU is also rising up the rankings, coming in at No. 9 in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association South Region, the highest rating in program history.
The next challenge for Novotna and the Lions is the SSC meet in Fort Lauderdale on Oct. 22, followed by the South Region in Tampa on Nov. 5.
To qualify for nationals, which is in Spokane, Wash. on Nov. 19, Novotna will need to finish in the top two in regionals.
"I'd love to go to nationals," Novotna said. "That's the main goal, and I think it is possible because of my coach. She's the reason I chose this school."
Story provided by Kyle LoJacono of the 'The Laker' Newspaper