Oct. 6, 2016

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In August 2014, as the start of the fall semester approached at the University of Virginia, Megan Rebholz worked out with her new cross country teammates for the first time.

It was a day Rebholz won’t soon forget, for all the wrong reasons.

“I couldn’t keep up at all. My legs were killing me,” she recalled. “Afterwards, I was crying and I was like, `I picked the wrong school, and I’m stuck here.’ ”

Rebholz, a 2014 graduate of Colonial Forge High School in Stafford County, had seriously considered James Madison University before choosing UVA.

“I knew that I could survive [at JMU as a runner],” she said. “I didn’t really know if I could survive running here.”

But her two siblings — sister Kelly and brother Tim — had preceded her at UVA, and Megan wanted to challenge herself. And so she opted to become a Wahoo, a decision she later questioned.

“The whole first month,” she said, “I was like, `This is a mistake.’ ”

Todd Morgan, who coaches the women’s distance runners at Virginia, knew Rebholz was frustrated early in her college career, but he was confident she could excel at this level.

“So I did try to go out of my way and encourage her to stick with it and not give up hope,” Morgan said. “You do that and you hope they listen to you, and hopefully enough of it stuck with her.

“Her first fall, she probably didn’t see a lot of success in her eyes. But it was like a light switch went off when she got back here after Christmas break. It was like all of the sudden it connected, and, boom, it was on.”

Now, as a third-year at UVA, Rebholz is one of the leaders of a cross country team — along with sophomore Emily Mulhern and graduate students Beth Hawling and Sarah Astin — that’s ranked 22nd nationally.

“Those four are our cornerstones,” Morgan said.

Such success for Rebholz seemed anything but inevitable when she picked up the sport as a teenager. Her mother ran recreationally, and “I would try and keep up with her, and she would get so frustrated with me,” Rebholz said, laughing.

“I was not a good runner at all when I started. Even when I started high school, I was the slowest girl on my high school team. And then I improved so much. Then, coming here, I was the very slowest one again, and then I just improved.”

At Colonial Forge, she was named all-state three times — once in cross country, once in indoor track and once in outdoor track — but was not a considered a can’t-miss recruit. Virginia pursued her anyway.

One of former UVA distance runner Thomas Porter’s brothers had followed Rebholz’s high school career and recommended her to the coaching staff. She impressed Morgan, too, when he spoke to her.

“Even though she’s really soft-spoken, she was level-headed and I could just tell,” Morgan said. “It seemed like she had a toughness to her that probably wasn’t spoken, it was quiet.

“Here, we obviously recruit the best kids in the country. But the way high school [running] works is, there are kids that for whatever reason haven’t put up huge marks, but have a skill set that could shine in a culture like we have.”

It’s not an exact science, Morgan said, but he was confident Rebholz’s fortitude and toughness, combined with her running ability, would allow her to thrive at UVA.

“She’s got more speed than she would probably [acknowledge],” he said. “She’s not ever going to be in the NCAA meet in the 1,500 [meters], but she doesn’t need to be.”

Rebholz had more than a little familiarity with the University when she arrived as a recruited walk-on in 2014. (She has since received a scholarship.)

Her sister, now in graduate school at JMU, was a kinesiology major at UVA. Their brother, who works for a software company in Wisconsin, majored in economics at Virginia.

Rebholz, who plans to become a public accountant, is in the prestigious McIntire School of Commerce, with a concentration in accounting. Away from school, she volunteers for Habitat for Humanity and once traveled to Florida to help build a house.

The persistence that helps her succeed in the classroom — Rebholz was named to the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association’s All-Academic team for cross country as a sophomore — carries over to her running.

“She just doesn’t know the meaning of the word `quit,’ ” Morgan said.

“She has things you can’t coach. You can encourage people and set them up to succeed, but at some point with an athlete, they’re either tough and have the grit in them to do it, or they’re not.

“At the end of the day, it’s a blue-collar sport, and I’ve coached kids that are genetically gifted and talented in a lot of ways, but if they don’t have that tenacity down within them, they never really reach [their potential].”

As a freshman, Rebholz placed 55th at the ACC cross country meet. A year later, she finished 22nd at the ACC championships and then was the Cavaliers’ second-best performer at the NCAA meet, where she placed 76th.

Outdoors, she was 12th in the 5,000 meters at the ACC meet as a freshman and eighth in the 10,000 meters as a sophomore.

“Once I started racing, I was realizing that my times were actually a lot faster than high school,” Rebholz said, and that motivated her. In the summer of 2015, “I was just really set on getting better,” she said. “So when I came back for my second year, I think I was in much, much better shape.”

At last year’s ACC cross country championships, Rebholz was the fifth Cavalier to finish the 6,000-meter race. That helped Virginia capture the team title for the first time since 1982, and so that’s “what I consider my best race in all of my college career,” Rebholz said.

“For me individually, that wasn’t even a good race for me. But everyone was so happy and so excited that you didn’t really care that you didn’t race well.”

Her best events are the 5k and 10k.

“I think the longer I go, the better I get,” Rebholz said. As for her steady improvement, “I think it’s really just Coach Morgan and his training,” she said. “He told me if I just show up every day and do what he says with a good attitude, it’ll work out, and it has. I just trust him.”

Morgan said: “She’s a really neat kid, and it’s fun to coach her. The mainstream idea of toughness is one thing, but some of the toughest athletes I’ve ever met are people like her.

“In our group, we have a bunch of what I call `silent assassins.’ They have great sportsmanship, but when they’re on that line on Saturday morning, I would not step in front of them.”

The Cavaliers will look to defend their ACC cross country title Oct. 28 in Cary, N.C. First, though, they’ll compete Oct. 15 at the Pre-National Invitational in Terre Haute, Ind. That’s the site of the Nov. 19 NCAA championships.

Had Rebholz not pushed through the adversity she encountered during her first month as a college athlete, she might be elsewhere. She’s glad she persevered at the University.

“I’m so happy,” Rebholz said.

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