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Tanaka has the second-fastest time in program history in the indoor 8000-meters event.

Credit: Chase Sutton

As Melissa Tanaka begins her senior farewell tour for the Red and Blue, she looks to even further strengthen her impressive winning resumé for Penn women's cross country and track and field.

Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., Tanaka started out her athletics career playing soccer during her middle school years. She eventually got exposed to running by a friend who was on a club track team. After joining her friend at a few practices, Tanaka realized that the only reason she liked playing soccer was because of its running aspect.

“Running is such a great stress reliever, and it’s also an awesome way to get to explore Philly or anywhere else you are,” Tanaka said. “It’s a great way to compete because it’s a nice combo of requiring lots of individual and self-motivation, while also having such an amazing team support system.”

Her list of accomplishments as a Quaker is extremely impressive, including wins at the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships, where she received All-Ivy honors, as well as running the second-fastest time in program history in the indoor 800-meters, crossing the finish line of the BU David Hemery Valentine Invitational in 2:05.91. Tanaka's most notable win was Penn’s historic distance medley relay team victory in the 2019 Penn Relays Championship of America Invitational in 10:59.44, setting an Ivy League record.

Recalling the unforgettable Penn Relays DMR win, Tanaka will always remember the teammates she shared it with: alumni Nia Akins and Maddie Villalba and current senior Uchechi Nwogwugwu.

“It was a special group of people. We were all in the best shape we’ve ever been in, and all four of us came together so perfectly,” she said.

Cross country and track and field assistant coach Matt Gosselin is well aware of just how special that group of four runners was together, as well as the deep impact Akins had on Tanaka.

“[Tanaka] has proved that [Akins'] excellence should be the standard of the Penn middle-distance program and should be a trend for years to come,” Gosselin said. “Not just a single person, but rather a continuation of lots of great people putting in a lot of hard work to be successful here.”

Even during these unusual times, Tanaka has continued to put in the work to be the best runner she can be for her final year with the Red and Blue. Since returning to campus, she has been running all over Philadelphia. Training with her teammates has helped to maintain both her mental and physical health, absorbing that team camaraderie that she so dearly missed.

Reflecting on her development as both a runner and a leader since her freshman year, Tanaka focused on her communication skills. She sees good communication with her coaches, teammates, and herself as a vital key to her success, and she thinks this has been a major point of growth throughout her time with the Red and Blue.

“The best way to get over any struggles you might be facing is to just talk about it with your coaches and teammates,” Tanaka said. “Be open and present with all of the people in your life so you can help each other whenever you need to.”

As a captain, Tanaka hopes that her teammates see her as caring and helpful, especially through these unexpected circumstances.

“She took the bull by the horns throughout the pandemic,” Gosselin said. “In a time where we weren’t able to have any practices or in person meetings, she was organizing Zoom meetings with the team without being directed by the coaches. Whatever comes up, she knows how to figure it out.”

Tanaka has had a tremendous impact on her younger teammates, especially sophomore distance runner Lizzy Bader.

“Melissa is a two-time Ivy League champion, 21st fastest 800-meter collegiate runner in the nation, an insanely smart, next level engineering genius, and the most humble person in the world given that she has never boasted about one of these few accomplishments,” Bader said. “She really embodies what a powerful leader should be, and I am very grateful to have her as my captain, teammate, and best friend.”

Clearly, Tanaka has left just as much of an impact off the track as she has in the Penn and Ivy League record books.