Julie Kocjancic’s late-career surge has blossomed into an example of everything that’s right about college athletics.
Penn State track and field/cross country head coach John Gondak lights up when he talks about one of his most decorated distance runners. But Kocjancic wasn’t always leading the pack in college; it took time for her to reach this level.
“Julie is a great story – where she came from in high school to what she’s accomplishing now. It’s like two different worlds,” Gondak said.
Kocjancic was an 800-meter specialist coming out of Pittsburgh’s Mount Lebanon High School, but has grown into an all-around contributor for the Nittany Lions. As a senior in her final indoor season, Kocjancic and the women’s distance medley relay team captured All-American honors, finishing sixth at the NCAA Championships in College Station, Texas, with a time of 11:04.89.
The DMR quartet of Kocjancic, Rachel Banks, Tichina Rhodes, and freshman superstar Danae Rivers broke the school record in mid-February at the PSU Tune-Up in 11:01.16. Kocjancic and Rivers also teamed up with Marissa Sheva and Frances Bull to set the program standard in the 4×800 meter relay last weekend in Gainesville, Fla thanks to a sterling 8:38.17.
“Breaking a record that’s been around for a while is an accomplishment because we have such talented people who come from this program,” Kocjancic said.
Her coach added he’s glad the underclassmen in both cross country and track have a role model to look up to who epitomizes what relentless dedication can do for one’s career. As a senior, Kocjancic’s leadership has been on full display. She was named a cross country team captain for the 2016 season and continues to push her teammates in the heart of her final outdoor slate.
Kocjancic has set PRs in all five of her track-based events in the last year, ranging from the 800 to the 3,000. She ran a team-best 4:24.79 in the 1,500 last outdoor season – less than 10 seconds off the Penn State record of 4:15.20 set by Marta Klebe in 2014. She also owns the fifth fastest women’s indoor mile in school history with a time of 4:40.43. The health policy administration major discussed a few ways in which she’s been able to improve with each year on the team.
“It’s more than just hard work I think. Definitely wanting to come to practice with a plan and working hard every day is a big part of it, but a lot of it is just growing as a person,” Kocjancic said. “Figuring out things about yourself — your life, your eating habits, managing your stress – you’re gaining more confidence, and all of that translates into athletics.”
Kocjancic has had a host of family members attend Penn State and said it felt like home when she toured the facilities during the recruiting process and at the PIAA State meet. Now that her time at University Park is coming to a close, she offered up a nugget of advice for her younger teammates to focus on after she graduates this spring. “Believe that you’re here for a reason and age isn’t a defining factor.”
On the flip side of the coin, Kocjancic highlighted a few of the runners that she routinely draws inspiration from, including one of her teammates — Tori Gerlach.
“I was a huge Brenda Martinez fan because I was an 800 runner,” she said. “Just as a person and an athlete, I like how she carries herself. Emma Coburn is just a very strong athlete and I really look up to her.”
On mornings before a meet, Kocjancic said she likes to tune things out. “I don’t think about running. I try to get out of the hotel as much as possible, and then I definitely like to play a lot of music.”
When she has some rare down time during a hectic year-round training and competition schedule, Kocjancic revealed that, “as bad as it sounds,” she often likes to go for a run. “I’m really busy because of running, but it’s been such a huge stress reliever. That’s why it’s so enjoyable. I’m pretty sure that’s why we all do it.”
Though Kocjancic has one last opportunity to compete for another Big Ten Team Championship and hopefully more at the NCAAs, graduation won’t signal the end of her career. She’s moving to Baltimore to do research at Johns Hopkins and plans to compete professionally in her spare time.
“I’ve never had the option to do marathons; I’ve always been in season,” Kocjancic said, “so I’m curious — I would like to try some of those.”