The realization that long-distance runner Hannah Oneda would represent the United States at the 2013 Pan Am Junior Athletics Championships in Medellin, Colombia, this weekend didn't fully hit the Westminster native and Winters Mill graduate until she opened a package sent by USA Track & Field recently.
Inside the shipment was a suitcase, which included a backpack, a uniform, a podium outfit, a rain jacket, T-shirts and shorts — all embroidered with the Team USA logo.
Oneda, a soon-to-be sophomore at Johns Hopkins who earned a spot on the national team by finishing third in the 5,000-meter race at the U.S. Junior National Track & Field championships on June 20 in Des Moines, Iowa, knew the gear was coming, but she was still in awe that her name was listed on the shipping label.
"It still feels a little surreal," said Oneda, who turned 19 on Aug. 14. "Getting a shot to go to Colombia, this is my first time leaving the U.S., so it's unbelievable. … I still don't think of this as being real. Do people actually get this? It's really cool. I just couldn't be more excited and scared at the same time."
How Oneda handles those emotions could go a long way in determining her performance at the Pan Am Championships.
The field for the 5,000-meter race — which is scheduled for Saturday at 8 p.m. EST — has yet to be fully determined, but Oneda won't compete against William and Mary's Emily Stites and Stanford's Megan Lacy, the two runners who finished ahead of her in June but declined the invitation to the Pan Am championships.
Blue Jays coach Bobby Van Allen noted that Oneda previously has run faster than her time of 17 minutes, 3.08 seconds at the national meet, but he said her showing was still admirable.
"I think I was more impressed with how she competed against a very stellar field," Van Allen said. "There was a pack of four girls that were really battling for that No. 2 spot, and for her to finish ahead of two of them with just the one girl from Stanford out of that pack of four [ahead of her], I was more impressed with how tough she ran that and was able to bounce back when there was a little separation early."
Megan Watson, the U.S. women's team head coach, watched Oneda perform in Iowa and was impressed with what she saw.
"What I liked was she was calm, consistent, [ran] with a lot of heart," Watson said. "A really strong competitor. She had a race plan, and she ran it. If I remember correctly, it was very hot that day, and she was one of the runners that came off the track and recovered really quickly. So she's fit, and I think she's going to continue to get better."
Duplicating that effort in Colombia could be more difficult for Oneda, who has been dealing with knee and hamstring injuries since her performance at the national meet. Both Oneda and Van Allen said the ailments are minor, but she has had to replace some of her training with pool runs and bike workouts and even take a few days off to avoid putting too much stress on her legs.
"I'm definitely not in the shape that I wanted to be in, but it is what it is and every athlete in their career has to deal with an injury at some point," Oneda said. "I'm glad to have it now in the middle of the summer. Of course, it's before the race, but it's much better than having it happen during cross country season or track season.
"And this way, I can learn how to deal with injury, and seeing what works for me, and dealing with my limits, and knowing when to stop and when to hold myself back. It was disappointing, but it's still a good thing."
Oneda and Van Allen have also spent time researching Medellin. At about 4,900 feet above sea level, the city is just a few hundred feet shy of Denver in elevation. Running in thinner air will be a challenge, but another factor is the high humidity in Medellin.
"That's going to be a different story, and it's going to be an interesting thing to get used to, but a lot of people are going to be in the same boat," Oneda said.
The humidity and elevation could impact Oneda's race strategy, but Van Allen said he has advised Oneda on running fast and strong, but not overexerting herself until she sees an opening.
"It's definitely one where she's going to be conservative in the beginning to stay within the pack and race with them, and depending how she feels, make a move in the second half of the race," Van Allen said.
Watson said she has no worries about Oneda suffering any stage fright on the international level.
"For these kids to get to this level, they're solid psychologically," Watson said. "Of course, every athlete has some nerves, and one of our jobs as a coaching staff is to take care of an athlete in a foreign land in that we try to control as many variables as possible and make an athlete comfortable in that new environment.
"We want to support them and give them what they need. They know that they are there representing the United States of America, and it's such an honor and it's such a privilege, and in my experience, they always rise to the occasion. They're ready to go and ready to compete."
Unlike the U.S. championship when her goal was a Top 5 finish, Oneda said she has no expectations for the Pan Am championships.
"Once the gun goes off, everything is different," she said. "If I did, I'd be pretty nervous thinking, 'What if I don't hit this? What if this happens?' Not having any expectations eliminates that wasted energy — at least in your mind — when you're racing."
Van Allen, who will fly to Colombia to watch her race, said he wants Oneda to soak up the experience and enjoy herself.
"I just want her to compete well," he said. "The world qualifying time was 16:40, and that's something she's done one time. So the competition is certainly going to be there, but I think it's best if she just gets out there and competes and doesn't worry about an overall place."
In addition to Oneda, McDonogh graduate Autumne Franklin (400-meter hurdles) and Navy's Jay Stell (javelin) will represent the United States in Colombia.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun