What gets cross country’s Emily Konkus up for 6:30 a.m. practice
Emily Konkus is a senior athlete on Washington University’s women’s cross country team. Konkus serves as one of the co-captains of the team, and she was the highest-place finisher for the team at the UAA Championships — one of many collegiate career highlights for the athlete. Konkus gave Student Life insight into the team culture that motivates her to attend every 6:30 a.m. practice, advice she has for younger student-athletes, and her successful UAA weekend competition.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Student Life: Can you give us a little background on your history running cross country?
Emily Konkus: I’ve been running cross country for about eight years now. I started in high school, and my team then was great. My older brother used to run cross country, so it was just a natural fit. I’d known about the sport and had a breakout season late into my freshman fall and fell in love with it. Going into my senior year, I decided that I wanted to run in college, and WashU seemed like a really good fit. [Head coach Jeff Stiles] is a very enthusiastic coach. When they flew me out for a visit, I fell in love with the team culture — and, of course, the school is great and the academics are awesome. Overall, it was all a good fit.
SL: Walk us through the UAA championships this past weekend.
EK: For UAA, we travel with 10 women and 10 men. Our biggest competition this year was U0Chicago. They had an extreme depth that I’ve never seen before from them, meaning they have a really solid five. But, even back through their five-ten runners, they’re all a very close pack. They’ve been ranked number one in the division throughout the season, so we knew they were going to be our toughest competition. We definitely had a closer gap in terms of team scores than what we’ve had prior, but I thought we had a really good race strategy that we executed very well. Also, the whole point of cross country is that you’re building to something great. Conference was just a step in the process to achieve something great at Nationals.
SL: How do you mentally prepare to compete?
EK: I think that after over eight years of racing, you definitely have a lot of knowledge. And I’ve definitely learned a lot. Specifically with the team, when you’re not racing for just yourself, you think of the fact that you’re on that line with nine other women, it takes a lot of pressure off of you. I think that’s what has been great about racing in college. [In the past], I would get on the line in high school and say to myself that it was just me on the line and that if I have a poor performance, this is going to be a failure. However, since beginning to race in college, I’ve realized that every opportunity you have and every race is an opportunity to learn. I think that’s a much better mentality and represents how I go into it now. Again, everyone is so positive on the team. It’s insane how much good energy there is and how much other people want you to succeed. For example, my other training partner Lindsay, who’s also a senior and my co-captain, is always by my side. She holds me up when it doesn’t go well, and I think that is something I’ll look back on [for] many, many years to come with a smile on my face and a lot of joy. Honestly, at this point, I don’t think there’s a lot of mental preparation because I’ve been [on the line] before. I tell myself that I can let the nerves calm down.
SL: Can you tell us a little bit more about the team culture?
EK: I think the team culture is really special and not something that you get across Division III. I think it’s really particular to Division III because we’re not here for money. We’re here specifically because we love this sport — no one’s getting paid to do it. Even if you run really well, nothing’s changing. You’re still on the team, but you’re not getting any special treatment or scholarships out of it. In the team culture, specifically, we have a big focus on winning team titles. Of course, everyone wants to excel individually, but I think there’s a focus on winning things as a team and scoring and placing at the national level. Last year, the goal was to get six conference titles across men’s and women’s. The big goal would be to get consistent national titles across men’s and women’s. The men won indoor last season, so the women are looking to replicate that sometime this year. Specific team-culture things we do include shorts that have crazy patterns. Everyone will bus up to the Cross Country national meeting, which is next week, and we’ll have 200+ alumni as well as current students and track athletes. Some will paint their bodies red and green and also carry a big flag. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve been a part of the cheering squad and also the people competing — and I think being on both sides of it, you feel as involved, if not more involved being on the cheer side. [Cheering] may be even more fun than competing; it’s just a whole lot of love. It’s definitely something very special.
SL: Now that you’re a senior and have had many opportunities throughout your collegiate career, what are some of the highlights?
EK: Number one would be the big race that WashU hosts during the outdoor track season. Last year was the first time I had been to it, because we didn’t have a season in 2021. The race is called the Distance Carnival and it’s an evening race, which is always fun because the lights are on at twilight, and there’s a little more hype, and a ton of people come out to support. I ran the 5K together with this other senior, and it was such a magical race. I started out dead last and I just thought [that] I’d see how it goes. I wasn’t expecting anything big out of it because it was also the beginning of the season, but Stiles hypes it up because he says it’s the best competition we see across distance events and is an opportunity to qualify for Nationals. So, I didn’t go into it with much hope, but we both ended up having the best races of our careers. Something just clicked, and my legs went on auto-mode. A specific moment I remember is when my training partner Lindsay hugged me across the line. She was crying tears of joy. It actually ended up being the race that qualified me for the national outdoor meet.
SL: What is your advice to incoming student-athletes?
EK: It’s definitely going to get hard. There will be times when you’re juggling so many plates. However, if you let yourself go through it and lean on the people around you, you’ll find that it’s a really enjoyable experience. I don’t want to say that giving up athletics would be a mistake, but I think you’ll end up looking back and seeing how much enjoyment there was, even in the times that it seemed really overwhelming, crazy, and hectic.
SL: Our last question is something that we ask every athlete. Would you rather have fish for hands or adopt a child every time you hear Bohemian Rhapsody?
EK: I honestly don’t hear Bohemian Rhapsody that much, so I’d say I’d adopt a child. Fish with hands is for life.