Sedro-Woolley High School graduate Kristen Garcia will compete Monday at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships.
Garcia, who began her college running career at the University of Wisconsin, is now competing at Gonzaga. She transferred in 2020.
The college junior qualified for the national championships after leading Gonzaga to a fourth-place finish at the West Coast Conference Championships on Feb. 24 in Las Vegas.
Garcia has been to the NCAAs before, but as a member of the Wisconsin women's team.
"This time, it will be different," she said. "I'm a little nervous because this will be my first time at the national meet without a team. So it's going to be a different experience."
Garcia is aiming for a top-100 finish at the championships, though she understands it is a field of talented runners.
"Everyone has been able to use this COVID time to train and to reach new levels," she said. "It's going to tough."
At the West Coast Conference meet, Garcia finished 12th in a time of 20 minutes, 50.20 seconds on the 6,000-meter course.
It was the eighth-fastest time in Gonzaga history and earned Garcia second-team all-conference honors.
"That race felt really good," she said. "I hadn't really had the best performances in the past at championship races in college. But I felt like at WCCs I was able to get on the line with confidence and was really happy with where I was and where the team was."
In her debut at Gonzaga, Garcia placed 15th at the Oregon XC Invitational in February, finishing in 17:32 on the 5,000-meter course.
Gonzaga coach Jake Stewart said the program has never had an athlete such as Garcia, adding she hadn't considered Gonzaga coming out of high school.
He's more than pleased she's in Spokane now and said her impact on the program was immediate.
"From that first race to the conference meet there was this growth," Stewart said. "I was very pleased with how she did at the championships. She went out, ran aggressively, put herself in the race and that was the goal. Now it's let build from there."
Garcia said she has improved this season, and consistency and comfort have been the keys.
"I haven't had any injuries since I joined the Zags, and my mileage has gone up and my workouts have improved," she said. "Overall, coach Stewart's training just suits me a lot better as a runner.
"That, and the level of support I feel from my teammates and from the coaches has really allowed me to feel comfortable."
At Wisconsin, Garcia had a 6,000-meter personal-best of 22:23.7 and a 5,000-meter personal-best of 17:42.
Deciding to run for Gonzaga has certainly paid off for Garcia.
She said the experience is much different than it was at Wisconsin, where there was always the feeling that "if you weren't running well every time, your spot would be taken."
"There is a lot more understanding here," Garcia said of Gonzaga. "That we are people and not just athletes.
"I just feel more at home here than I did at Wisconsin. I came here and felt so accepted by the team and the coaches and so far, it has been a great experience."