Sandoval’s reasons for running have made her stronger

Southwestern's Isela Sandoval. Photo courtesy SWOSU Sports Info.

A family separated not only by distance, but by circumstances. Adapting to a new country and culture as a young child. Growing in one’s faith. Facing the challenge of leading a young team to new heights. These are all challenges faced by junior Isela Sandoval of the Southwestern Oklahoma State University Cross Country team.

Sandoval moved to the United States from Ojuelos, Jalisco, Mexico when she was just seven years old. Her family struggled and fought for the life they now enjoy, moving from one uncle’s house to another until Sandoval’s father was able to find an apartment. The family shared a single bedroom. Now, Sandoval is the oldest of six children, with her youngest sibling a two year old brother. While her early life was a challenge, those struggles and trials have created a runner forged by faith and the love of her family.

Photo courtesy SWOSU Sports Info.

Photo courtesy SWOSU Sports Info.

Sandoval was a late bloomer to competitive athletics. When she was in junior high, she would often run during her physical education classes; however, she had never competed in a cross country or track meet. Eventually, her teacher spotted her athleticism and encouraged Sandoval to compete in the junior high’s athletics programs. Though some sports failed to stick with her, she found her niche with running.

“Towards the end of the year, she [my teacher] told me to apply to athletics, and I was the only eighth grader that was new to athletics,” Sandoval said. “I went to volleyball camp and basketball camp, but I couldn’t dribble or serve to save my life. When track season came around, I was the first person to sign up, and that’s where I started off running.”

What started off on the running track would eventually carry over to the cross country course. During the final meet of her eighth grade year, the high school coach at Ennis High School took notice and asked her to come out for the cross country team. However, Sandoval had never heard of the sport.

“He had to explain how it was like track, but you don’t just run around in circles. The races would be in parks and other places,” Sandoval said. “He also mentioned the top 15 runners win medals, and that caught my attention.”

With thoughts of showing off hard-earned medals Sandoval decided to go out for the team when she became a freshman. Despite not practicing over the summer, she still finished second in qualifying for the varsity program, surprising the rest of the team. It was the start of a successful career in cross country, but one that Sandoval felt was started for the wrong reasons.

“Running started as a selfish thing,” explained Sandoval. “I liked the attention, compliments and showing off the medals. But my mom would tell me, ‘Use your talents for something other than yourself. Give it to God.’”

“I would pray in my mind, but as a Catholic, we have the universal sign after prayer, but I didn’t like doing that because it would draw attention to myself.”

Making the sign of the cross was an uncomfortable act for the teenage Sandoval, and she worked towards feeling more at peace with her faith in a public setting. Her life changed, and with it her approach to her faith, when a couple months after her quinceañera one of her uncles was kidnapped by the drug cartels in Mexico.

“We still don’t know anything about him, and that just completely changed the way I live and how I think,” expressed Sandoval. “I dedicate my races to him, and I pray to God for him and his well-being. Even though it’s been six years since that incident, I feel like my faith has brought me to where I am today.”

Since that fateful day, Sandoval has been more vocal about her faith. She never fails to find strength in Christ, and always finds time to give her thanks to Him. That change has led her on a journey that she hadn’t imagined when she was graduating high school.

Her journey has taken her from Ennis High School to Clarendon College to SWOSU as she looks to become the first in her family to graduate college. Going into her senior year of high school, Sandoval envisioned herself at a large state school in Texas like Stephen F. Austin or the University of Texas at Arlington. However, as her high school coach pointed out, she would not be afforded the same opportunities to run cross country as she would at the junior college level. That is where she met former Clarendon Head Coach Zack Leggett and Sandoval began her collegiate career.

“When they told me about Clarendon College, I laughed because I didn’t see myself at a junior college,” Sandoval said. “The closer I got to graduating, I realized that was my best option. I went to a retreat before graduation, and I was praying not for myself but others. I kept on getting these thoughts about college during this prayer, and so I listened to them.”

“A week later I got a call from the coach and he said he would like to offer me a scholarship. After the coach told me that, my mom told me she was pregnant. I knew I could help my family by getting that scholarship, but I also knew it would be hard to be so far away from my family and that I’d miss my brother’s birth.”

What transpired at Clarendon was nothing short of a successful career with the Bulldogs. Her career culminated in a top-eight finish at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) National Championship during the 2014 season. And though she received plenty of recruiting letters, after discussions with Coach Leggett, as well as a phone call with SWOSU Head Coach Shane Brookshire, Sandoval determined SWOSU was the school to continue her education.

“My second year there, Coach Leggett called me during Christmas break, and he told me a coach was interested in me, and that was the first time I came in contact with Coach Shane,” said Sandoval. “I talked to Coach Shane for about an hour, and he told me about the program, the times and his plans for the team. He was the first coach that I had a conversation with. That was a big sign for me.”

Isela Sandoval. Photo courtesy SWOSU Sports Info.

Isela Sandoval. Photo courtesy SWOSU Sports Info.

“I was looking for a junior college athlete to bring in who would have a little more experience,” Brookshire said. “I thought this school would a good fit because she wants to be a nursing major and SWOSU is a really good school for that. I gave her a call, and there was something about her that really clicked.”

Coming to SWOSU meant further sacrifices for Sandoval as she put even more distance between her and her family. She’s missed birthdays, games and other family gatherings. Despite this, Sandoval has put her feet to the trail and pushed forward with her training, bringing with her valuable experience to a young SWOSU Cross Country program.

“She’s real positive and respectful,” Brookshire said. “She really puts everything she can into each practice. I have to tell her to slow down sometimes because she really pushes the pace at times. I never have to motivate her, she always finds it from within. She brings it every time she’s set to race.”

Her impact has not been felt just in setting the tone at practice and mentoring the younger runners, though she does share a dorm with freshman teammate Sierra Campbell. She has been one of the Bulldogs’ top two finishers in each of the first three races this season. While that may not have surprised her, the times she has posted certainly have.

“The first meet, he [Brookshire] told me that he thought I could go under nineteen minutes, but I figured that was a year away,” Sandoval said. “Two weeks ago, I ran nineteen-flat, and couldn’t believe it. It shows he knows what he’s doing and that I needed his coaching.”

That race two weeks ago was the Missouri Southern State Stampede. The Tom Rutledge Cross Country Course on which the race was ran has been chosen as the site for both the NCAA Division II Central Region Championship, as well as the NCAA Division II National Championship. Sandoval crossed the line in 19:00.26, the fifth-fastest time in school history.

“My initial reaction started when I was about 50 meters from the starting line,” Sandoval recounted. “I could see the timer, and it read 18:56, and I was like, ‘Is this really my time.’ I started counting in my head so that I wouldn’t be distracted by the timer.”

“When I crossed the line, I was just overwhelmed. The fact that it was that good of a race, that early in the season, makes it even better.”

There are still plenty of races to be run for Sandoval. Now that she’s reached her goals faster than she thought possible, she can push on to new heights. All the while, she will use her faith and her family to keep life in perspective.

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