Temple's Blanca Fernandez heading for NCAA cross-country meet

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Temple's Blanca Fernandez crosses the finish line first at the American Athletic cross-country championships, Oct 31, at East Carolina University.

Blanca Fernandez e-mailed American colleges last year, hoping to leave Spain and earn her master's degree on an athletic scholarship. Fernandez was an elite runner at home, good enough to race with the Spanish national team. But she did not know what to expect.

America is a big place, Fernandez thought. There might not be room on a team. Temple e-mailed back. The Owls were interested. So were two other schools. Fernandez picked Temple for its urban campus, its business program and the European vibe she felt in Philadelphia.

Fernandez met with Temple's coaches in January. She did not know what to expect. Fernandez told them, "Let's see what happens." What happened was a trip to the NCAA indoor championships in March and a trip to the outdoor championships in June. She returned to school in the summer. Fernandez knew what to expect.

Fernandez told her coaches that she wanted to finish the cross-country season with a top-15 placement at the NCAA championships, which she will race in on Saturday in Louisville, Ky. She is the first Temple women's runner ever to reach the NCAA championship.

Her goal is within reach. Fernandez is undefeated in all six of her races this season. She won last week's Mid-Atlantic Regional, navigating the 6k course at Princeton in 20 minutes, 52 seconds. Kentucky's warmer weather should allow Fernandez to challenge for a top spot.

"People say, 'Oh, you won six. Why not win seven?' Fernandez said. "But this is completely different. This is going to be the whole country. You can find people that are amazing. The race is going to be pretty tough."

Fernandez, 23, will be joined in the race by La Salle's Morgan Szekely and Penn's Ashley Montgomery. Villanova's Patrick Tiernan, Robert Denault, and Jordan Williamsz will compete in the men's race. The Penn men's team and Penn State and Villanova women's teams also qualified.

"I just want to enjoy it," Fernandez said. "It's the top competition that you can race against. I feel pretty good to say that I'm ready to go. The amount of people on the starting line is not going to be different than the other races, but the level of those runners is going to be the difference."

After Saturday, Fernandez's focus will shift to the indoor season as she begins her preparations to earn a spot in next summer's Olympic Games. Fernandez' sights are set on qualifying in the 5,000 meter race, a race she has never ran on the track. But her success in the outdoor season gives her confidence. Her cross-country races are 1,000 meters longer than the Olympic event.

Fernandez told her coaches of her decision to qualify in the 5,000-meter race instead of her original goal of the 1,500. Her coaches laid out a plan. The runner knows what to expect. She will focus on the 3,000-meter race during the indoor season before stretching to 5,000 meters in the outdoor campaign.

Fernandez then will spend her last months at Temple chasing an Olympic qualifying time of 15:20. If she reaches that, she will need to finish in the top three in July at Spain's national meet. And then in August, she could be off to Rio De Janeiro for the Olympics.

"It's the top goal for any athlete," Fernandez said. "You always dream of that, but it is so high that sometimes you say, 'That is not for me. It's too much.' But now for me, I'm training for that, so why not? It's hard to explain."