Since her arrival on the campus at Montreat College in the spring of 2017, a simple pattern has emerged in many of the races run by Lydia Wilson. The junior distance runner often starts strong, establishes herself near the front of the pack, where she frequently finishes.
Less than a month into the current Cavaliers cross country season, the All-American's college career is on the same track.
Wilson, a native of Smithfield, Virginia, brought no organized running experience with her to Montreat, but that didn't slow her down.
"Lydia came in that January and, two weeks later, stepped on a track for the first time in her life at an indoor meet at Liberty University," said Cavaliers Director of Cross Country and Track and Field Jason Lewkowicz. "She would go on that indoor season to qualify for the national championships in the 5,000 meters and the mile."
She earned NAIA All-American honors for her performance in the mile and qualified for nationals in the 10,000 meters.
"We were all very surprised at how quickly she adapted to collegiate running," Lewkowicz said. "That said, it was evident early on that she was talented and coachable."
Her first run in the 10,000 meters qualified Wilson for nationals in the event, but a stress fracture in her hip derailed her freshman campaign.
"After suffering from a stress fracture my freshman year, I let the injury shatter my confidence in running; it was devastating to me," she said. "That summer, I spent a lot of time with a physical therapist, swam and biked to stay in shape, and worked with my coach to form a plan that would slowly bring me back to running again."
Wilson missed the outdoor track and field season that year, but returned to competition when the cross country season began the following fall. She qualified for the NAIA nationals that season, despite the lingering impact of her injury.
By the conclusion of her sophomore outdoor track and field season, Wilson was an All-American again for her performance in the marathon distance.
"That spurred her on to a great summer of training and a renewed outlook on cross country," Lewkowicz said. "She stayed healthy and progressed well all season."
Wilson opened the 2018 cross country season with a first-place finish in the 2-mile at Warren Wilson College Dual Meet. She averaged 5:53 per mile on her way to a time of 11:46, nearly a minute-and-a-half ahead of the second-place finisher.
"She wound up with an All-American finish at the cross country National Championships," Lewkowicz said.
Wilson not only made a name for herself on the track and trail, she also earned the 2018 Cavalier Award of Excellence in April. The recognition is given to the Montreat College athlete who embodies exceptional academic success, personal character and spiritual growth.
"I was extremely humbled to receive that award," said Wilson, who took a mission trip to the African country of Niger after her senior year of high school. "God alone deserves the honor and recognition. He made my lungs to receive oxygen, my legs to carry me, and my mind to will my body to push past physical barriers in running. I am so thankful for my coach, who has believed in me from the very beginning and challenges me to be the best version that God made me to be on the track."
While Wilson is widely recognized around Montreat for her athletic ability, her impact goes far beyond the competitive arena, according to Lewkowicz.
"Lydia is known around campus not only for her successes, but for her humility, kindness, and desire to love and serve others well," he said.
Entering her final cross country season, Wilson shows no signs of slowing down.
She opened her final cross country campaign at Warren Wilson College on Aug. 30, when she finished first in the 2-mile run with a time of 11:57. Her efforts not only helped lead the Cavaliers to a team win, but earned her Appalachian Athletic Conference Women's Cross Country Runner of the Week honors.
She followed that performance with an 18:24 effort in the 5,000 meters against UNC Asheville on Sept. 14, when she beat out a trio of Bulldog runners for the top spot.
"This season, I'm enjoying the process," Wilson said. "The process it takes to get fit and healthy. The races are simply the time to test that fitness and I am happy to see the progress, but there is still more work to be done."
While she has already accomplished a lot during her college career, her coach believes her best is yet to come.
"I'm excited to see how this season goes for her and the team," Lewkowicz said.
Wilson believes strongly in her coach's encouragement for his runners to "pursue excellence today."
"I try to embody this by paying special attention to my diet, sleep, hydration, mental state, social state and spiritual state," she said. "This, I believe, is the best medicine I can take to improve my performance."
As her love for the sport continues to grow, Wilson will focus on improving her performance in track and cross country.
"I love distance running," she said. "I love the miles and miles of work on my feet in training, which enable me to think, reflect, dream and pray. Community is built in distance running because hours and hours must be clocked, allowing topics to surface among the group and discussion to emerge. I value this aspect of the sport above the rest."
Wilson is on track to graduate in May, but could return for a senior season of cross country as a graduate student. If that happens, she'll bring another season of her "tremendous leadership, great work ethic and focus of honoring God and giving her best every day," her coach said.
"Lydia could run at pretty much any college in the country," Lewkowicz said. "We're blessed that she is here at Montreat."