“I hate that people know my name now.”
Emma Bates would prefer she be the dark horse, the one that surprises everyone — exactly what the Boise State distance runner did last June to win the women’s 10,000 meters at the NCAA track and field championships as a junior.
But having “defending national champion” in front of your name changes a lot of things. After adjusting to her role as the one with a target on her back, Bates hopes to end her collegiate career with another NCAA title next week in Eugene, Ore.
“What happened last year, even that snuck up on me,” Bates said. “… There’s more pressure now, and it’s been a little difficult, my confidence has sometimes been a little shaky, but I know what it takes to get that goal, and that’s what I’ve been working for.”
Bates will compete in the 10,000-meter final Thursday and the 5,000 meters (where she finished fourth last year) Saturday.
Whether it was putting stress on herself for not quite running as fast as she’d hoped, or others stepping up their game when they have a chance to beat a national champion, Bates hasn’t dominated as one may expect. She finished third at cross country nationals after taking second as a junior.
“She didn’t run well until the end of the fall. The transition wasn’t as smooth. It hasn’t been all roses,” Boise State coach Corey Ihmels said. “It’s how you respond to those things. And I’d say she’s training better than last year. I think she’s in a good place — she’s going to be ready when it counts.”
With no indoor season to bridge her from cross country to the outdoor campaign, Bates had a little more free time as she was training for her final season. But not being able to compete got in her head a bit.
“During indoor, (Ihmels) told me not to look up results, see how others were running,” Bates said. “It was tough because I’m a racing junkie. I love the stats and all that, so I had to choose to be in the dark, put the blinders on. It works, because it’s kind of what I need to do next week, just focus on myself.”
She hasn’t won yet in the spring, though she set the school record in the 10,000 with time of 32 minutes, 12.28 seconds May 2 in Palo Alto, Calif. Bates finished fourth in the 10,000 in 34:29.05 at the West Preliminary in Austin, Texas, on May 28 and third in the 5,000 in 15:52.74 two days later. Those are solid times, but Bates held back a bit.
It all has built to this. And scary for her opponents, but Bates knows she can do a lot better. After all, her winning time in the 10,000 last year at the NCAA meet was the second-fastest in its history. That confidence? It’s back.
“That’s kind of always how it’s been for me — it takes me time to get in a rhythm,” Bates said. “I always had those ups and downs, but now it’s just more in focus. It’s taken maybe a little longer than I’d like, but in Austin I felt really relaxed, knew I could kick with the top girls in the nation.”
Soon, Bates hopes to be competing with some of the best runners in the world. She will turn pro soon after she competes in Eugene with her hopes set on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Bates said she plans to remain in Boise at least during the warmer months to train. As one of only two female athletes at Boise State to win a national championship, she has been able to reflect on her accomplishments as her final competition as a Bronco lies ahead.
“I’m very proud of what I’ve become, but it’s because of all the fans, the department, the current and past coaches I’ve had,” Bates said. “I really want to do those people proud, it would mean even more because it’s been a lot harder. I want to prove the lovers right, not the haters wrong — because they’re the ones that matter.”
Her coach is excited to see Bates unleashed, free of pressure, able to put her best foot forward in the season’s biggest event.
“She’s just ready to go,” Ihmels said.
And it just happens to come at her favorite time of the year.
“I think sometimes where some people can falter, I get a lot better,” Bates said. “I peak at the right time.”