Sept. 11, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Don’t let her size fool you. Iona Lake may give up inches to most runners she races against, “but she’s a super athlete,” said Todd Morgan, head coach of the University of Virginia women’s cross country team.
For the record, Lake said, she’s listed at 5-foot, but that may not be accurate.
“I think with shoes on I’m 5-1,” Lake said, smiling. “We’ll round up.”
Lake, 22, is from Norwich, a city near the eastern coast of England, not far from the North Sea.
“You can’t swim in that,” she said. “Well, you can if you’re brave. It’s quite cold.”
Lake spent her undergraduate years in England at the University of Birmingham, from which she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology. She wanted to attend graduate school and run in United States, and because she competed in track and cross country for only two of her three years at the University of Birmingham, she had two years of NCAA eligibility remaining.
She ruled out schools in the Deep South and the Southwest, Lake said, because she “didn’t want to end up somewhere that was too hot all year round. I kind of liked the idea of having seasons. It was going to be a bit more like home.”
Another runner from England, Vicky Fouhy, had competed for Virginia after graduating from the University of Birmingham, and she spoke highly of Charlottesville to Lake. And so Morgan’s pursuit of Lake proved successful. She enrolled at UVa last summer and competed in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track during the 2014-15 academic year.
The weather was not exactly what she expected.
“I didn’t quite realize how hot it gets here,” Lake said, laughing, “but it’s not too bad.”
She’s on track to leave the University with two master’s degrees. She earned the first Ã¢â‚¬” in curriculum and instruction Ã¢â‚¬” from the Curry School of Education. She’s now enrolled in another one-year master’s program in the Curry School, this one in educational psychology.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” said Lake, who plans to become a teacher when her running career ends.
Her best event is the steeplechase, but in cross country Lake was UVa’s top finisher last fall at the NCAA Southeast Regional. At the NCAA meet in Terre Haute, Ind., she was the second Cavalier to cross the finish line and placed 102nd overall.
“I do enjoy cross country,” Lake said. “It’s a lot different over here than in England. Here it’s faster — they make the grass really short — where in England they’ll just put you in a field and it’ll be hilly and you’ll have to jump over streams. Where in America you can look at a time in a cross country race and be like, ‘Oh, that’s a good time.’ But in England, they never look at times, because the courses are just impossible to run fast on. Because it rains so much, and it’s just muddy.”
In 2014, the UVa women finished third at the ACC championships and 15th at the NCAA meet.
“That team did well, considering what was going on,” Morgan said. “Every team has adversity, so I don’t like to use that as an excuse, but that team did seriously have some things going. Maria Hauger didn’t run, and a couple other key people were really at 80 percent.”
From last year’s team, the biggest losses were Morgan Kelly and Kathleen Stevens. Among those back are Lake, Cleo Boyd, Sarah Fakler, Sara Sargent, Laura Pierce and Megan Rebholz. The Wahoos entered this season ranked No. 16 nationally.
“I was proud of that team last year, but we weren’t real satisfied with that [finish at NCAAs],” Morgan said. “I think this year they’re hungry to do better.”
Hauger, who redshirted last fall, “had a great spring and summer of training,” Morgan said, “and bringing her back into the lineup is huge, along with adding the people that we did.”
Newcomers include freshmen Bonnie Angermeier and Emily Mulhern and transfers Carly Hamilton and Sarah Astin. At Georgia, Hamilton was twice a first-team All-American in the mile (indoors) and in 2013 won the SEC title in the 1,500 meters (outdoors).
Astin came to UVa from St. Mary’s College in England. She’s from Isle of Man, an island in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. Lake is living this school year with Astin and William Gray. A distance runner on the UVa men’s team, Gray was one of Lake’s classmates at the University of Birmingham.
“It’s nice having a couple of Brits here, actually,” Lake said.
Not that she minded being the only one in the program in 2014-15. She was eager, Lake said, to “get to know all the Americans and the culture and everything. The only thing I found hard was, training is slightly different here. I think it’s more mentally intense over here, where in England I’d just run on my own most days and just kind of fit it around my schedule. Where in America it’s a lot more organized and structured.”
Last winter, Lake placed seventh in the 3,000 meters at the ACC indoor meet, and her best time in that event (9:22.75) ranks third all-time at UVa.
In the spring, she won the ACC title in the steeplechase, a 3,000-meter race in which runners must clear seven water barriers and 28 other hurdles. That Lake was recovering from strep throat when she raced made her triumph that much more impressive.
“She was on amoxicillin when she won ACCs,” Morgan said, shaking his head. “It was crazy. I couldn’t believe it. She’s tough. She’s as good a competitor as I’ve ever had.”
Lake said: “Luckily I was on the road to recovery. The day of my race I took my last antibiotic, so I was almost feeling better.”
On race day, Lake said, “I wanted to win, but I wasn’t sure if I could, because I’d been ill. In the race I was having major doubts, and then I just managed to have a sprint finish.”
With one lap to go, Lake was in third place, but she rallied to edge Florida State’s Danielle Winslow by less than a second: 10:08.31 to 10:09.02.
“Looking back, my time wasn’t as good as it could have been, but I think that was because of strep throat,” Lake said. “I didn’t feel great when I was running, so I was running [slower than] I would have wanted.”
In outdoor track, her season-best time of 10:01.58 in the steeplechase ranks third all-time at UVa, and her season-best time of 16:15.93 in the 5,000-meter run ranks seventh.
After winning the ACC championship, Lake traveled to Jacksonville, Fla., for the NCAA East preliminary rounds. Weakened from her bout with strep throat, she ran a solid time but finished 16th and so narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAA championships.
The field “was just crazy fast” in Jacksonville, Morgan said. “It was unfortunate, because I thought she could have scored at the NCAA meet.”
Lake said: “I think it was because I’d missed a few weeks of training. I was really annoyed not to make it.”
By late June, she was fully healthy again, and she turned in three strong performances in the steeplechase, finishing in less than 10 minutes each time. The first race was in England, where she ran a personal-best 9:56.64. The other two were in Estonia at the European Athletics U23 championships.
Her goal is to represent Great Britain in the steeplechase at the Olympics. Lake had assumed her best opportunity would come in 2020, in Tokyo, but her summer times have made 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a possibility.
“I’m actually really close to it,” she said. “I never really thought that Rio would be my aim. It was always going to be the next one. So I’m going to give it my best shot, but I’m not expecting to.”