Montreat College sophomore Lydia Wilson is a regular sight running through town, heading south on N.C. 9 from Montreat and out onto the streets of Black Mountain.
“I love to see people out and I love running through Black Mountain; it’s very homey,” said Wilson. “Typically if it’s a longer run, I like to go around Lake Tomahawk and through the (Montreat College) Black Mountain Campus, and (Veterans Park).”
Those road miles are paying off. On Sept. 19, the Smithfield, Virginia native was named the NAIA National Runner of the Week following an outstanding performance at the Lenoir-Rhyne Invitational the week before.
In that race, she broke up a string of seven consecutive Appalachian State finishers leading the field of 66 runners. Wilson took sixth overall and was the top non-NCAA finisher in the meet.
For Wilson, it was a welcome return to the remarkable success that marked her arrival on campus as a freshman in the spring of 2017 but was then waylaid by injury.
Her athletic passion through her high school years was horse riding. “Basically all my life I was surrounded by horses,” said Wilson. She picked up running as a way to stay in shape for her equestrian pursuits. About halfway through her four years, she grew more interested in the sport, and began running the roads around Smithfield alongside her horse, Cocoa.
She also began to run local road races with her family – Lydia is the fourth of six Wilson children – and enjoyed the sense of community at the events. As her interest in running grew, she pursued competing for the local high school team, but wasn’t allowed to run unless she was a full-time student.
A turning point for Wilson came in her senior year when she began to feel that she was putting her equestrian career ahead of her primary focus, her faith. It compelled her to take a measured step back from the sport. She decided to keep Cocoa, but sold another more expensive horse as part of that process.
Wilson also felt the pull toward missionary work, and felt especially called to serve in Africa. During her gap year following graduation in late 2015, a friend invited Wilson to join her on a mission trip to Niger. Wilson was concerned that she couldn’t afford to make the journey, but that concern was addressed when a final check from the sale of her horse arrived and effectively provided the funding she needed.
She flew to Africa in February 2016. Niger was a challenging choice in many regards. The country is one of the most impoverished on the continent, and only .3 percent of its 20 million people practice Christianity. While Wilson was serving abroad, she placed running on hold.
That summer, she first heard of Montreat through a relative living in Swannanoa. Wilson knew she wanted to attend college, and liked the early impressions of the school. Financially, however, it appeared out of reach.
With that, Wilson decided to extend out her gap year by six months and worked at a bed and breakfast as a waitress to save money. She lined up several road races during the fall, and also reached out to Montreat’s Director of Cross Country and Track, Jason Lewkowicz.
She was immediately impressed that the coach was interested in her character and missionary work, and less interested in statistics. That proved fortunate as technically, Wilson didn’t have any. She did add a significant credential when in November 2016 she ran in her first marathon, and won.
Late in 2016, several relatives were able to contribute to her tuition and she also received some scholarship funding to enroll at Montreat. She arrived on campus in time for the 2016-17 indoor season never having run competitively for a team, on a track, or in spikes.
“She shows up on campus that January never having run cross-country or track in her life and a few weeks later she's on the brand new track at Liberty University running against DI athletes and runs 18:48 (in the 5k) the first time she ever steps on a track,” Lewkowicz said.
“The first time we went to an indoor track meet I was with my teammate Madeline [Sides] and she had to explain everything to me. I had to ask her ‘So how many laps are in a mile, anyway?’” Wilson said.
By the conclusion of the season she was an NAIA All-American at the distance.
The chance to enjoy the honor was short-lived. During spring break, she first noticed a dull ache in her hip that grew more acute over the ensuing weeks. It would diminish as she ran, but progressively increase from run to run.
By the 2017 AAC conference championships at Montreat, after a poor showing (by her typical standards) in the 1,500 meters, Wilson was in tears at the finish due to a combination of a difficult race, fatigue, and excruciating pain.
Although an initial x-ray proved negative, a subsequent MRI revealed a stress fracture in her hip. That effectively shut her down for the season despite having earlier qualified for the NAIA outdoor nationals in the 10,000 meters. Instead, she began on a 10-week recovery period in which she cross-trained but did no running.
It was a deeply challenging period for the runner physically and mentally, and its impact spilled over into the fall 2017 cross-country season, although she was able to again qualify for the NAIA nationals.
Her spring 2018 track season proved a gradual return to form. This fall, the addition of 2016 Rio Olympian, Abbey Cooper (née D’Agostino) as a volunteer to the Montreat coaching staff has proven a boon to the entire team, including Wilson.
In Rio, Cooper suffered a devastating injury in the 5,000 meter preliminaries, tearing both her ACL and meniscus following a collision with New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin. The two working to help each other to the finish line provided the world with the Games’ iconic image of the Olympic spirit.
The Olympian also draws her running strength from her faith, and can speak first hand to the challenges of recovering from injury. Add in that she is the most decorated runner in Ivy League history and has won seven NCAA national titles, and it is hard to picture a more fitting mentor for Wilson.
“She’s the kind of person that people are drawn to because of her authenticity,” said Wilson. “When I was able to run with her for one of my training runs, she shared her personal story with me and was so open to talk about her highs and lows in her career and how she’s pushed through them.”
Lewkowicz had nothing but praise for the young runner, and sees her helping to lead a small, but talented, women’s cross-country team to new ground this fall.
“Her work ethic – just the combination of everything makes her a joy to coach,” said Lewkowicz. “I think there’s still room to grow. We’re still trying figure out what her ceiling is."
With Cooper on staff, and an unwavering motivation compelling Wilson forward, it may take many miles upward to reach it.