Noted as arguably the best one-two punch in NCAA running right now, senior Elaina Balouris (Allison Park, Pa.) and sophomore Emily Stites (Wyoming, Ohio) are assumed to have a competitive relationship as the Tribe’s top runners. After sitting down with both women, however, that assumption could not be farther from the truth. Embodying a team-player mentality and genuine desire for the program’s overall success, Elaina and Emily are actually each other’s biggest supporters, and the two rising stars want nothing more than to bolster William and Mary’s program and shed light on all of those who help them achieve their goals. We sat down by the track in Zable Stadium to discuss their love of the sport and the partnership that keeps them one step ahead of the competition.
How would you describe the all-encompassing lifestyle of your sport? Is it difficult maintaining a training regimen that is so demanding?
Balouris: It’s pretty intense because everything you do in your life affects how you’re going to feel when you practice and race. We’re very focused and have learned how to manage our time well.
Stites: You really have to be dedicated and love the sport more than anything. Getting up early for double runs isn’t easy, and this is such a mental sport. You have to be tough and determined, and focusing on everything from sleeping to eating to recovery is all crucial.
What is going through your minds on runs? Does it vary on training days versus race days?
Balouris: Training is really casual and fun, we all chat together and talk about our days. Twice a week we have runs that are a lot more intense, so in those instances we’re thinking about racing and how we can improve.
Stites: Yeah, all of our training groups have different dynamics. And on workout days, it’s really important to visualize the race, really channel it and prepare for that moment. Racing for me is the simplest, just get from point A to point B as fast as you can.
Balouris: In races, Emily and I are pretty much side by side the whole time, so we use each other to build confidence and take risks because we know we’re doing it together.
Stites: Absolutely. When Elaina is next to me, it’s really comforting. It just feels like we’re back in Williamsburg doing a workout together.
You both placed well at the pre-Nationals meet a few weeks ago – Emily you were 8th and Elaina finished 12th. How did you feel about your results and how that performance bodes for you team moving forward to Nationals?
Balouris: The focus in that meet was to get experience on that particular course because we’ll be back there in 4 weeks for Nationals. We wanted to learn as much as we could and take some chances because we knew we can fix any mistakes in the new few weeks.
Stites: The course was difficult, especially at the start where you had about 300 girls running through a pretty packed space. Elaina and I just took to the front as fast as we could and worked with the front pack for the rest of the race. We focused on staying strong and staying together from 3k on, and we just finished it out as hard as we could.
How would you describe each other, as athletes and just as people off the track?
Stites: I just really look up to Elaina, because she’s older, but also when I first came to W&M I felt sort of clueless about the whole process of collegiate running. I learned not to just pound out every run, to control my pace, the importance of recovery. I’ve learned so much from her example, and she’s truly one of the most beautiful people inside and out. I couldn’t have picked a better teammate and partner than Elaina has been for me.
Balouris: Emily came in last year and shocked us all from the beginning. She has an extremely positive attitude and a great intensity, and she balances the fun and serious sides of the sport so well. Everyone on the team looks up to her, even though she’s younger, because she’s a phenomenal runner. Training with her is great, we really understand each other, and we can talk through any issues about running or just about life. We want each other to succeed, and we’re both so team-oriented and realize that we need to be at our best in order to help our team be the best it can be.
Stites: Yeah, it’s funny because when people see us, they think it’s about competition and beating the other person, but Elaina and I are just not interested in that. We’re just trying to make each other better. I’ve never once thought, “I have to beat Elaina in this workout or this race.” Running is such a mental sport, and it’s a waste of energy to think about beating my teammates.
How do you two feel about being called one of the best running duos in the country right now? Do you feel extra pressure from that attention?
Balouris: I think it’s cool, I don’t feel pressure from that. We’re both good at controlling emotions too, so we don’t let ourselves get too worked up in general, especially in races. We know what we need to do and we’ll keep getting it done.
Stites: W&M is a small school, so that fact that people take notice of us is exciting. It’s not any added pressure, I think it’s a compliment. Nobody gives us anything, we prove ourselves through our hard work. It’s kind of funny because in high school I never envisioned this kind of success and attention. It’s great looking back to where we started from where we are now. You really have to attribute a lot of our success to our coaches as well, and our teammates give us so much support. We just want everyone to be recognized from the positive impact they have on us.
From the outside running can seem like a very individualistic sport, but how important is the team dynamic for you two?
Balouris: It’s hugely important. Every person on the team offers something important, whether it’s skill or personality or positivity. When we went to Nationals last year, our remaining teammates made us a really silly good luck video and sent it to us the night before the race – that’s just how our team is. We run for our entire team every single meet.
Stites: I honestly think we have one of the best teams in the country in terms of our support and motivation of each other. We’re all so respectful of each other’s talent and that creates a really positive dynamic.
What is your proudest achievement so far, and what are your biggest goals for your team moving forward?
Balouris: Our team qualifying for Nationals last year in cross country was amazing. It was the first time in history we qualified automatically by finishing top-2 in the region, and it was just awesome because none of us had been to the NCAA’s in cross country before. Running with the best athletes in the country was a phenomenal experience.
Stites: For me personally it was running in the world cross country meet in Poland. It was so humbling to stand on the starting line wearing the USA jersey. That was such a rare opportunity, and crossing that finish line was probably one of the coolest things I’ll ever do in my life.
Balouris: Going forward, we obviously want to qualify for Nationals. Last year we were ranked 21st, and this year we’re shooting for a huge step up, like top-10, which I think we’re absolutely capable of.
Stites: Yeah, we definitely want to go to Nationals again as a team. And to just keep progressing and building up the program here.
What keeps you motivated to keep pushing the boundaries and strive for constant improvement in your sport?
Balouris: Well, Emily and I both love “The Eye of the Tiger”, so we sort of adopted that phrase as a motivator for us this year. Also, our coach, Jill Miller, had the entire team choose a word that we wanted to define us, and that was really important to me as well.
Stites: Totally. My word is Fearless and Elaina’s is Mighty. Every person on our team has a word that defines them, which is really special.
Balouris: Emily and I are each other’s motivation. We will always push each other to be the best that we can be, and that can only lead to more good things in the future.
Stites: We know we can take anybody on together because the way we see it, there are two of us and only one of them.