After an excruciatingly long layoff, a familiar name is back atop the leaderboard for the Penn women’s cross country team.
Healthy again after a hip injury cost her a trip to NCAA regionals last fall, Leslie Kovach is back to work on returning to her All-American form.
Hopes were high for Kovach last year, as outstanding performances in her first two seasons had many talking about a potential trip to the Olympic Trials in Oregon.
The 2011 season certainly began promisingly enough, with a sterling 23:01 six-kilometer performance at Ivy League Heptagonals on a difficult course that was by far the best for the Red and Blue and seemed to confirm the preseason hype.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
The injury to her hip cost Kovach dearly, eventually causing her to miss much of the indoor and outdoor track season as well.
As the spring season ended, Kovach faced a difficult road back to her dominant form.
Further complicating matters was the departure of her coach Blake Boldon, who was replaced by Steve Dolan in August.
Though many often struggle with the transition between coaches, the arrival of Dolan has galvanized Kovach’s efforts.
“Going into senior year, coming off an injury for seven months was kind of unsettling, and I was nervous,” Kovach said. “But coach Dolan has proven to be a very good addition … that’s kind of given me confidence to [stay] patient.”
With Dolan in place, a new balance between easier running and intense workouts has been established, keeping Kovach’s competitive fire in place and preventing her from rushing back too fast and too soon, risking re-injury.
If there’s been anything that Kovach has learned from the rehabilitation process, it’s patience.
“It’s pretty much just a process of ‘How patient can I be?’” Kovach said. “I just have to wait and allow things to progress. … I’m a very competitive person, I like to just go after it.”
Kovach’s most recent performance, a 6K of 21:28 at Lehigh’s Paul Short Invitational, is indicative of her slow-but-steady progress back to her elite form.
Though Kovach placed just 56th overall, her time was only 22 seconds off of her performance there two years ago.
Dolan, for his part, was encouraged by Kovach’s start to the season.
“It’s [Kovach’s] first time she’s had to go out at that pace at the beginning of a race with high-level runners, so it honestly was hard for her,” Dolan said. “But sometimes your body has to experience that, getting better, and hopefully you can come back more prepared and stronger for it.”
It’s clear to everyone around the Red and Blue organization that, as much as she’d like to, Kovach is not going to post the times at next Thursday’s Haverford Invitational that earned her All-Ivy accolades for cross country in 2010.
Rather, the new culture of long-term thinking and patience that Dolan has brought to the Quakers has ensured that the All-American’s return to form will be a gradual one — one without the risk of a devastating re-injury that would crush the hope surrounding her senior season.
Most importantly, Kovach herself has bought in to Dolan’s philosophy.
“Each workout makes sense, each workout has a purpose,” she said. “Each day has a purpose, and that’s what [Dolan] wants to emphasize.”