As Liana Epstein ’14 headed to the starting line of the women’s cross-country meet against Harvard on Friday, she was gripped by a strong sensation of déjà vu, she later said.
Epstein did not yet know that, in under 18 minutes, the team would crush the Crimson, taking six of the top seven places in the race. She did not realize she would emerge as the winner with a personal-best of 17:24.78 for the 5-kilometer course. At the starting line, Epstein thought back to her first meet at Yale little more than a year before, when she shrugged off a year of injuries to lead the Bulldogs to their first victory against Harvard since 2006.
Epstein felt the same nervousness before the meet, the same drive to perform against Yale’s arch rival. Nerves, she said, can be turned into positive energy that propels the competitor through a strong race. Indeed, nerves worked well for the three-season athlete the last time she found herself facing Harvard in cross country.
“I knew what teammates I had been working out with and where I should be, but when you step on the line, nothing premeditated really matters,” Epstein said.
Epstein launched into action.
The Elis stayed in a pack, a strategy encouraged by head coach Amy Gosztyla, who joined the team last year. Seeing six of her teammates surround her while she ran the race was encouraging, Epstein said.
Gosztyla added that she was impressed with the team’s ability to stay together.
“There was definitely more blue than crimson up in that front pack,” Gosztyla said. “That’s what we were looking to do.”
In the end, according to Gosztyla, the race came down to the last 600 meters.
Epstein stepped up and began to pull away from the pack. She was neck and neck with the Crimson’s lead runner Samantha Silva, but in the end, Epstein overpowered her opponent. Silva finished in 17:25.58, less than a second behind Epstein.
“Liana just took off,” teammate Millie Chapman ’14 said. “It was awesome. I saw her go and I thought, ‘Yes! She’s going to kill it!’”
Before high school, Epstein never would have imagined winning a college cross-country meet. She played soccer for 13 years and her goal, she said, was to be the next Mia Hamm. But she stumbled into cross-country during her freshman year of high school when she decided joining the indoor track team would be a good way to train for soccer. Ready for something new, she chose to start cross country her sophomore year of high school instead of soccer, and she never looked back.
Epstein was a district and regional champion in both cross country and track during her high school days in northern Virginia. But despite her many accomplishments, her path to Yale was not without difficulty. Epstein suffered a stress fracture in her foot that took her out of the starting blocks and onto the sidelines during her senior year.
“I sat through state meets and watched people run my races and wondered what would have happened if I was healthy,” Epstein said.
But she added that she was glad she had experienced injuries before coming to college. When some minor injuries and a hip labral tear took her out of competition for all three seasons — cross country, indoor track and outdoor track — her freshman year, Epstein said her experience with injuries in high school made the circumstances more manageable.
On Sept. 17, 2011, Epstein headed to the starting line of her first race in more than a year at the Harvard meet in Franklin Park, Mass., which last year also included Princeton.
“Before the race, there was a big question mark in my head,” Epstein said. “What’s going to happen today? Am I still the same type of competitor?”
Epstein took a close second, finishing just six seconds behind Princeton’s top runner, then-senior Alex Banfich. Since then, Epstein has continued to improve, Gosztyla said. She won the Princeton Invitational in October, led the Bulldogs to a fourth place finish in the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships and finished first for Yale in the NCAA regionals, where the Bulldogs took sixth.
In indoor track, she qualified for the ECAC championships in the 3-kilometer race and defeated Harvard in the same event during the outdoor track season.
Epstein is a very balanced runner, Gosztyla said. In addition to displaying a great level of maturity and focus in training, Epstein also exerts a “tremendous influence” for the other members of the team. Chapman added that Epstein lifted her teammates’ spirits when she would show up to practice in a crazy outfit and dance to her own fun playlists.
“It’s great to see someone who can work so hard, have so much fun and be so successful,” Chapman said. “I am so happy for her.”
Epstein remains cognizant of the other members of the team who are overcoming their own injuries. Her primary goal for this season, she added, is to stay healthy.
Even while battling toward victory against Harvard, Epstein said she thought about her teammates who did not make it onto the course.
“I thought about people who were not running on that day for other reasons, whether because they were injured or because it wasn’t their time,” Epstein said. “There were a good number of people who would give anything to be in my position, and that has to be worth something.”