VIRGINIA — After stepping away from the sport of cross country in 2020, Virginia senior Aaron Nelson decided a return to the race course was in order for 2021.
Nelson joined the newly-formed Rock Ridge team this summer and didn’t miss a beat. Not only did he immediately contribute for the Wolverines, but he became the team’s top runner and has led Rock Ridge to numerous meet wins this season.
With his eyes set on a potential state meet appearance, Nelson says he’s glad a return to the sport was in the cards.
“I got in contact with some of my running friends and some parents on the cross country team and they said they were all excited to see me back out there,” Nelson said at practice earlier this week. “So I figured I’d give it a shot and come back out my senior year.”
Not coming out for the sport in 2020, Nelson says other things in life were more important at the time.
“There was a lot of personal stuff going on in my life at the time. Cross country just wasn’t really a priority to me. I kind of saw myself as a new person after this year started so I figured I better go out and give it my all. I don’t think taking the year off really set me back much.”
With the Wolverines taking first as a team at the season-opening Virginia Invite (and Nelson, himself, taking second individually), the senior said it was clear from the beginning that the Wolverines would have the chance to do something special this season.
“I knew right from the start that we had a lot of potential. Seeing the guys we have out here, I think a lot of us knew we could put down some good times. Being here with them and training every day, it’s a fun feeling and everything has been working out well so far.”
Now, with multiple individual and team wins under his belt, Nelson and the Wolverines appear to be a top contender in the new Section 7AA.
Rock Ridge co-head coach Jon Wagner says Nelson’s return to the sport has been nothing short of stellar, saying it’s not easy to do what he’s been doing so far this season.
“He’s exceptional,” Wagner said. “There aren’t many like him and I think it’s part of his nature to be competitive. Even if he wasn’t running competitively for some time, he still goes out and runs on his own because it feels good to do it.
“It’s unusual for someone to do what he does but now with him being a part of the program this year, it’s clear he’s done well and he has the drive to keep improving and maybe impress some people at the end of the season.”
Running alongside fellow standout in junior Cam Stocke, Nelson says having one of the state’s best runners ready to push him has only made this season better.
“He’s recovering from an injury still but even with that, he’s right there with me,” Nelson said of Stocke. “It’s so helpful to have him pushing me every day.”
As a whole, the Wolverines are an impressive team and Wagner says the team aspect of the sport is truly the most rewarding part of it all.
“People think of sports like cross country as individual sports but I disagree. It’s easy when you’re in a race running 34th out of 80 and you might think there’s no reason to worry if you fall back or no reason to want to gain a few spots. But the team is what makes it so important to fight for every extra position.
“I like the synergy that comes with the team aspect of the sport, and Aaron and the guys on this team really understand that. They’re out there for themselves as well as their teammates.”
Coming from a running family, Nelson’s mother, Alicia, is the coach of the Mountain Iron-Buhl cross country team where his sisters, Kate and Liz, both run. With family ties to another local team, Nelson appreciates what that brings to his home life.
“It’s a supportive household,” the senior said. “When I come home every day, it’s fun to be around people that like the same thing I do. It’s weird because my mom coaches another team but she’s still giving me tips. That’s actually the best part about cross country, everybody wants to help everybody.”
With the postseason rapidly approaching, Nelson has high hopes for himself and for Rock Ridge. He hopes to push his 5K time under 16:30 or lower and aim for a top 10 spot at the Class AA state meet. His coach believes he’ll definitely be able to make some noise by season’s end.
“Part of my job is to open his eyes to the possible goals that maybe he hasn’t thought of,” Wagner said. “I look at him and Cameron as runners that can slip under the 16-minute mark but if I mention that to him he might not believe it at first. When I see him running at practice and at meets, I see someone that can be at the very top of the state in AA this year.”
Being a senior on a new team that became competitive from the beginning, Nelson says the experience of his final high school cross country season is one he likely won’t forget.
“It was a shock at first. Realizing I was a senior and then looking at all the possibilities we have as a team. It’s a unique experience for sure.
“The combination of Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert has certainly made things even more exciting. I try to motivate everyone on the team and I know we’re all excited about the opportunity in front of us and we’re all putting in every bit of effort to get there.”