Mo is ready.

Her freshman year at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, the track and field program handed Monique (or Mo) McKenzie a new event: the steeplechase. The obstacle course stretches 3,000 meters, includes several stiff barriers and features an occasional water pit. EOU sophomore Kristy Pletan completed it last year at a meet in 12 minutes, 1.74 seconds.

McKenzie already has some experience ... just separate elements. At Wallowa High School, she ran cross-country (more than three miles) and qualified for the state championship meet as a sophomore. Each spring, she raced the high hurdles and made triple jumps in addition to long-distance runs. When she enrolled in the fall at EOU, Ben Welch, the head coach of cross-country and track, recruited her for the steeplechase.

"Coach saw I did the 3,000 in high school," McKenzie said. "He figures I can do this."

Quickly, McKenzie found a new atmosphere in college sports. A more demanding level, EOU athletes train throughout the year. Cross-country began a month before the fall semester. Teammates repeatedly sprinted up hills. Once classes started, they practiced twice each day including a weight lifting session in the morning. Come December, McKenzie shifted her focus to track. Hurdle drills built her leg strength.

An old ankle injury forced McKenzie to miss cross-country races in the fall. She still practiced, but declared a red-shirt and sat out of competitions. Her senior year at Wallowa, during the basketball season, she hurt her right ankle and health remained a question throughout the winter. Months later, rehabilitating the joint with exercise bands at EOU, she finally found relief. And she inserted orthotic pads into her shoes.

"A lot of my pain came from being flat-footed," McKenzie said. "But now, I'm done with injuries."

On top of athletics, however, most of McKenzie's schedule revolved around academics. While in high school, she had considered pursing a career in archeology. But EOU lacked a major, so she took up rangeland ecology and management as her major with minors in soil science or natural resources. Her teammate in cross-country, Katie Clapp, will soon graduate with a degree in the field and had recommended it. McKenzie admitted she always had an interest. She used to work in a forest conservation service. And her father, Dan, worked as a logger. Upon finishing her studies at EOU, Monique will earn a degree from Oregon State University.

At college, McKenzie has found a balance between athletics and academics. She receives credit for track. And her schedule accommodates it. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, she finishes classes by noon. Tuesdays and Thursdays, she has one course. The rest of her day, outside of track practice, is open. Her dorm feels like a community. Students on her floor kid their "rivals" on another floor. Meanwhile, the attendants encourage their residents to get out and explore La Grande.

"I didn't think college would be this awesome," McKenzie said. "At first, all I thought was, 'ugh, more school.' But I've made a lot of friends. I've gotten to meet people I used to know but haven't seen in years. It's really exciting."

Hector del Castillo is the Chieftain's sportswriter. E-mail comments and questions to hdelcastillo@wallowa.com.

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