LSU sophomore cross country runner Julia Palin was dead set against her mother’s wishes.
The suggestion of having to email former LSU cross country coach Mark Rinker for an opportunity to run for the Tigers was one Palin, who hadn’t run cross country in high school, found to be “humiliating.”
LSU was a school more than 1,500 miles away from her home in Norton, Mass. But through annual trips to her mother Leigh Ann’s Louisiana hometown of Rayville, the thought of going to college in Baton Rouge, where football games became part of the family’s pilgrimage, wasn’t so foreign after developing an affinity for the school and local culture.
“LSU was my dream school,” Palin said. “I fell in love with everything about it from age two until now.”
Palin, a soccer standout, had long envisioned herself being a college athlete. But even after tasting her share of success as a long-distance runner in track, set her sights on attending smaller Division I programs outside of her home state.
At her mother’s instance, Palin finally emailed Rinker about becoming a runner for the Tigers and following a meeting, the two sides agreed to a preferred walk-on spot in the program.
“I was very mediocre to below average out of high school,” said Palin, who won three state championships in track as a senior at Norton High and left with 15 school records (7 individual, 8 relays) to her credit. “My recruiting journey was more me being, ‘Can I please run for you guys.’ My times weren’t getting the attention of schools like LSU or anything like that.
“I was looking at LSU just to be a student because I knew I couldn’t play Division I soccer or run track there. After I emailed Coach and had a great conversation, it ended up working out. I’m just thankful for the opportunity and I don’t want to waste a single day of it.”
Fast-forward to Friday where Palin enters the Southeastern Conference championships as LSU’s most consistent performer this fall, serving as a catalyst for a team with high expectations heading into their 9:05 a.m. race at the University Club.
This marks the second such race for Palin who finished 36th during the 6K event in the 2018 SEC championship meet as a true freshman before redshirting last season.
“It’s crazy where my freshman year I’m running in this race and looking at Auburn, Florida and all of these huge schools and thinking, ‘What am I even doing here?’,” she said. “We’ve been working really hard for this meet and excited to see what we can do when we work together.”
Palin’s career took flight during her freshman season when she scored in all six of her team’s meets and was LSU’s top finisher five times.
She became the first runner in program history to earn the SEC’s ‘Freshman Runner of the Week’ honor with a second-place finish as she helped LSU to the team title in its own invitational meet.
Palin transferred the success of her first cross country season into more good fortune during her freshmen indoor and outdoor track seasons. She was fifth in the SEC 5,000 meters indoors (16:46.71) and captured the UAB Invitational 3,000 meters (9:54.04).
“I think my freshman (cross country) year I was kind of going out there with my head cut off, I had no idea what I was doing,” Palin said. “That was kind of fun. I was trying to get better and use each meet as an experience and then you have these big goals for your sophomore year and having to wait another year.”
She won the LSU Alumni Gold 5,000 meters (17:02.47) to highlight her first outdoors season that also included a ninth-place finish in the 10,000 meters (34:38.41) at the SEC outdoor championships to go along with a personal best and 18th place (34:34.20) in the NCAA East Preliminaries.
“I knew who she was during my last year at Mississippi State,” LSU second-year cross country coach Houston Franks, who was previously an assistant at Mississippi State. “From a distance I thought she was a tough, gritty kid. When I got the job, she was one of the people I was really excited to work with and my impressions didn’t do it justice. That’s a tough, tough kid. As good as she is, the best is yet to come.”
That steely exterior was challenged when Palin, who redshirted during the 2019 cross country season, overcame a broken foot during training this past February for the indoor season. She responded by running a personal best time of 9:46.99 in the 3K at the Razorback Invitational, was runner-up in the mile run at the Purple Tiger Invitational (5:05.99) and won a silver medal in the mile run at Corky Classic (5:10.58).
After missing the SEC indoor championships, Palin opted to take some time off from training, reducing her training by half this summer to 30-35 miles with an eye toward returning to become a significant part of an overhauled cross country roster expecting improved depth to compete in bigger meets.
However, with the coronavirus pandemic coming to the fore in March, the threat of not having a season became a reality throughout the summer until the SEC announced a shortened season that would begin in September.
“I think this season my focus was just getting back into that competitive realm,” she said “I couldn’t really put any expectations times wise with everything going on. I’m happy with how our team has been able to get better with every single meet. That’s all we can ask for.”
Palin showed no ill effects from her foot injury seven months before and was LSU’s top performer in the five-team SEC Preview Meet at the University Club, turning in a time of 17:51.7 to finish 16th over the 5K course.
She subsequently followed that by finishing behind teammate Katy-Ann McDonald to take third place at the Florida State Invitational (17:41.1) and was third (20:44.9) in the Arturo Barrios Invitational hosted by Texas A&M nearly two weeks ago.
“I’m kind of viewing this season as a blessing,” Palin said. “It’s so easy to get caught up that I’m not running the time that I want or get this place that I wanted. At the end of the day there’s a pandemic. A lot has happened in the last year. I’m just thankful to be running and doing what I love again.”