By Dave Krider
"A lot of people look at me at the starting line and go, `Wow, she looks really young, like 10 or 12 years old,' '' says Ashley Brasovan, who just turned 17. Opposing runners shouldn't be blamed for their thoughts, though, because Brasovan, who is a junior at Wellington, Fla., stands just 4-foot-11 and weighs 78 pounds soaking wet.
Don't let her diminutive size fool you, however, because she is the reigning Foot Locker national cross country champion. In early December, she ran the muddy 5,000-meter course in at Balboa Park in San Diego, Calif., to beat the top distance runners in the country. Included in the 40-member field were defending national champion Kathy Kroeger and 2005 national champion Jordan Hasay. Ironically, Kroeger, who placed , and Hasay also are juniors.
Her youthful look even caught Foot Locker officials off guard. "Before the regional (in Charlotte, N.C.)," she recalled, "they came up to me and made sure I was in high school, because you can't run if you're not in high school."
Apparently she better not ever leave home without her birth certificate!
Entering the national finals, Brasovan was not even on the favorite's radar. After all, she had failed to qualify for the big meet as a freshman and sophomore and she finished only sixth in the regional, which was won by Kroeger. Charlotte's chilly weather was not to her liking and, besides, she just wanted to make the top 10 for that coveted ticket to San Diego.
She did possess a special ability, though: she was adept at running hills - a must if one wants to win at Balboa Park.
Doug Butler, who is head coach at Holy Trinity in Melbourne, Fla., has been working with her as an adviser since July. Three times he took her, along with his team, to run a tough half-mile hill at the National Training Center in Clermont, Fla. She improved her time from to , which Butler considered excellent. He also has helped increase her leg speed, which he terms "her only weakness."
Butler affirms that he expected her to win the national title "because I knew she could run hills as well as anybody in the country. (Running at Clermont) gave her confidence. She saw how much faster she got."
Entering the championship race, Brasovan noted, "I wanted to be in the top five. I didn't want to go out too hard. I just wanted to run my own race. I knew after the second mile that I had a lot left in me. I went for it, took a chance and it worked. I took the lead with about 600 meters left and held it the rest of the way."
The frustration of not even qualifying for the finals the previous two years was wiped clean and the personable teenager called it "probably the best feeling I ever had."
Brasovan actually started out in ballet and gymnastics during her early grade school years. She switched to swimming in the third grade, specializing in the breaststroke and freestyle. Interestingly, she took up running in sixth grade "to help my swimming. It was kind of like cross training." She finally gave up swimming in the middle of her freshman year to concentrate on distance running.
It's rather surprising she even attempted distance running, because the first race she ever ran had ended badly. As a second grader she joined with other family members to run a 5K race in Lakeland, Fla. As each person crossed the finish line, his or her picture was taken.
"I was throwing up everywhere," Brasovan recalled. "My stepdad still has that photo on our fridge. I think it will be there pretty much forever. They say one day they are going to send it to all the press out there."
Lacking sprinter's speed - but strong on endurance - she began running the mile as a middle-school eighth grader, recording a best time of 5:28.
As a freshman at Wellington High, she really got hooked on distance running when she captured the Class 4A state championship in cross country with a time of .
"That was really a big deal," she admitted. "I was excited about that and realized it was the sport for me."
She also won the Great American Cross Country Festival Invitational in North Carolina with a time of . That spring she won the Class 4A 3200-meter state track crown in to complete an amazing freshman campaign.
As a sophomore she repeated as state cross country champion in . She also repeated her 3200 triumph in a sizzling state-record time of - and was not even pushed. She placed second in the 1600 in . In between, she won the Nike Indoor National two-mile crown in at Landover, Md. She was second to Kathy Kroeger in the Race of Champions at Hoover, Ala., in . That same year she ran a career-best cross country time of at the Florida Runners Invitational in Tampa.
"I was in shock," Brasovan said of her state-record 3200 clocking. "A couple of days later I looked back and said, `Wow, I can't believe I ran that time!' ''
Last summer she ran the 3200 in to place fourth at the Nike Outdoor meet in Greensboro, N.C.
In the fall of her junior year, Brasovan came under the tutelage of Kara Weber-Fleming, her third coach in three years. Fleming, coaching against her at the time, first had seen her run as an eighth grader. She recalled, "Usually little kids like that get run over, but she just took off and we couldn't catch her.
"She's the hardest worker I've ever met. She works hard on her own and is very self-motivated. That's good, because she usually is running alone (in most of her races). She has great dedication to succeed. She eats a lot, but focuses on nutrition and training. For her size she is very muscular.
"She is a motivator to other people on our team. She brings `goodie bags' and before the regional she made up special (inspirational) quotes for each girl. She's probably the quietest one on the team."
Brasovan began her junior year by making it a three-peat in cross country with a winning time of . This led up to her national championship and now she is preparing to defend her indoor title in Landover, Md., this winter "to see where I'm at."
Her only real goals at the moment are to relax and stay healthy. She will, of course, continue working on her "speed and kick" to go with her great endurance.
Though she carries a perfect 4.0 GPA, she hasn't really given college much thought yet. Down the road she could see herself becoming a dietician. She is a member of Wellington's National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society and is editor of the yearbook sports section. She loves to scuba dive, water and jet ski.
The talented teenager "kind of looks up" to world mile record holder Alan Webb, whom she has met. "Wow, he's really down to earth! He has a life outside of track. He has really good balance."
The fall of 2008 will be especially interesting because three former national champions will be gunning for the Foot Locker title as seniors. Will one of them become a two-time winner, or will an unknown emerge to record still another stunning upset?