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Past struggles motivate Battista

BY SAM LOUWAGIE | NOVEMBER 09, 2010 7:20 AM

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Two years ago, Mark Battista sat in coach Larry Wieczorek's office for an uncomfortable conversation. Battista, a talented sophomore runner, had underachieved to the point where he failed to make the Hawkeyes' traveling roster for the Big Ten outdoor track-and-field championship.

Wieczorek, the men's track and cross-country head coach, told Battista his career as a scholarship Iowa runner was in jeopardy.

"I kind of just left it at that," Wieczorek said. "And then I went off to the Big Ten meet, and he went home for the summer to digest things."

How did Battista respond?

"I'd say the proof is in the pudding," the 24-year head coach said.

Battista rededicated himself that summer, and the New Lenox, Ill., native emerged the next year as a new runner. He placed 25th at the NCAA Midwest Regional meet to earn All-Region honors in cross-country and qualified for the NCAA national meet in the steeplechase in track. Wieczorek saw "a renewed sense of urgency" in his runner and a confidence that grew with each successful race.

That success has continued this year. Battista has been Iowa's second finisher — behind sophomore Jeff Thode — in every meet, and he finished 25th at the Big Ten championship meet on Oct. 31.

Battista vividly recalled details from that day in his coach's office and called it a "game-changer" in his running career.

"[Wieczorek] said I wasn't living up to expectations, and he was thinking about not even bringing me back and letting me finish my career out," he said. "I had to think, 'Do I really want this to be over?' And I didn't. So I started working a lot harder and changed my attitude."

That change in attitude — and accompanying career resurgence — helped Battista become the Hawkeyes' captain this year. Wieczorek said sometimes being a captain is simply a status symbol or "a nice honor" for an individual.

"But every once in a while, a captain does make a difference," he said. "And I sincerely think Mark is one of those captains."

Freshman runner Jon Michael Brandt agreed, saying Battista's presence helped him adjust to NCAA cross-country.

"He really took all of us freshmen under his wing and helped us transition to college running," Brandt said. "He took the time the first couple weeks to get to know us and talked to us one-on-one about concerns or things we had."

Brandt said it's clear Battista is motivated by his past struggles.

"That's his fire, his driving force," he said. "You can really see it in practice."

Wieczorek praised Battista's ability to lead both vocally and by example and said the captain has the respect of his teammates. Battista said his role as a captain includes motivating teammates, keeping them from taking shortcuts, and lifting their spirits when they're down on themselves.

His own early career struggles help him take care of that last one.

"I've tried to use that [story] sometimes," Battista said. "It's not fun to talk about, but I try to tell guys, 'I've been in a worse place than where you're at right now, and you just got to keep going and keep believing in yourself.' "


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