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Joan Nesbit

It seems strange to introduce Joan Nesbit as "distance runner," because that's only a small part of what the diminutive North Carolinian is about. "I'm basically a full-time mommy, part-time coach, sideline runner," she says. "I'm into everything else so much more than my running it's strange."

Nesbit and her husband, Bill Kerwin, have a 3-year-old daughter, Sarah Jane. Her desire to have another child has fueled persistent rumors of an impending retirement. The rumors are hard to fathom when her running career is blossoming. Nesbit clarifies, "I'm not retiring from track. Never will. I was going to have a second child in '96 if I made the World team in '95."

She missed the 5000m team for the World Championships, finishing 4th in a kicker's race. So now she is preparing for the Olympic year, with some regrets. "I'm getting old, and you can't have babies forever," she says. "So I've got to work it in when I can but I want to have a couple more kids. I don't want to retire, and if I didn't want to have a baby I'd just keep on pounding. But Sarah Jane needs a brother or a sister; that's much much more important than running."

Coaching is also important to Nesbit. She coaches the men's and women's cross country teams at the University of North Carolina, her alma mater. "I really do believe, as do the martial arts people, that a huge part of perfecting my art as a runner is learning how to teach it," she explains. "I think that's where the coaching comes into play. By becoming a coach, I will have learned more about myself as a runner and about running in general. It's forced me to become a student of the sport. I have to believe in what I'm doing for myself to be able to give this to the kids."

A large part of her efforts with the Tar Heel runners is getting them to be less serious about their running. "I'm always telling them this line, 'You guys, it has to be everything or nothing. And you've got the everything part down.' They put way too much into it to the point where they're just running tight. These kids want it so much. They just don't miss a workout. That's the everything part. But the nothing part is, it's just running. It's not somebody's life."

Nesbit's philosophical approach to the sport evolved only after a roller coaster career that has spanned the years since she started running seriously in 1980. Without that roller coaster, without that philosophy, she wouldn't be the runner she is today, the runner who demolished the field at the USA Cross Country Championships last fall.

In high school, Nesbit tried cheerleading, basketball and gymnastics, but didn't get serious about running until her senior year. Larry McAfee, her high school coach, kept telling her she could improve. "I believed him," says Nesbit. In the last race of her prep career, the state championships, she cut her mile time from 5:25 to 5:05. In the first example of the fortuitous timing that has characterized her career, Nesbit, who hadn't planned on running in college, got a scholarship on the spot.

"The Carolina coach was there, he liked what he saw, he said he liked my guts," she says. After a disastrous first year, Nesbit showed plenty of potential as a Tar Heel. Still, she didn't make All-America until her breakthrough senior year, when she ran 32:54.19 for 10,000m and placed 4th in the NCAAs. Again, good timing kept her going. That was 1984, and prize money was newly available on the road racing circuit. She dove in, and won the prestigious Falmouth race in her first attempt.

The roads also tempted her to maintain the high mileage she had experimented with as a college senior. "That was what warped this obsession with running miles," she explains. "I think that set me on the course of overtraining for the next few years."

In 1985, Nesbit "fell into the abyss of having nowhere to go after college." She nearly quit the sport, but steeplechaser Jim Cooper, another ex-Tar Heel, encouraged her to stick it out. By 1988 she had hooked up with coach Harry Wilson, who had made his name in mentoring former mile World Record-holder Steve Ovett of Britain. "I learned a ton about how to train under him but I trained way too hard," says Nesbit of the experience. "I was hovering around that top group of runners in the country but never really popped anything to solidify my place."

By 1990 a tired, disillusioned Nesbit found relief in the only major injury of her career, a case of plantar fascitis. "I was overtrained and just downright tired. I actually welcomed the injury," she says.

The next year the transformation began. Nesbit started running again, only this time, she coached herself. She says, "I was just running for fun." Then her father died.

"At the Olympic Trials in '88, when I was lapped in the finals," she remembers, "I was about to cross with one lap to go, and the announcer said, 'That's Joan Nesbit finishing.' I could have stopped at 24 laps. Everyone else had dropped out at that point. I went on and all I heard was my dad in the stands going, 'Atta girl, Joanie, way to finish!' That was a hard lap. That's why I tell my kids you should never drop out because you never learn anything that way."

In quick succession, Nesbit finished up her thesis, earning her masters degree in American literature. She married Kerwin. And her running jumped to a new level. "Once I decided to coach myself, I realized, I can run what I want; I can have fun. I could take some risks coaching myself. First thing I did was run an event I loved, not an event I should run. Everyone kept telling me I should be in the 10K, but I loved the 3K. That's when I learned the lesson is that joy is the biggest motivator. The joy the 3000 had upon me I think ended up making it a breakthrough year." Nesbit ran faster than ever but finished 4th in the Olympic Trials.

"Everyone said I made a dumb move in having a baby right after that. It wasn't." With the birth of Sarah Jane, Nesbit's low-key philosophy reached critical mass. "The two most dramatic moments in my life are my father dying and my daughter being born," she explains. "It puts running in perspective. It has to. If it doesn't, then you're not a thinking, feeling creature. I just can't believe running can mean that much, when you've watched your dad die and your daughter be born."

Last year, Nesbit came back from maternity looking to have fun on the track. She won a bronze medal at the World Indoor, then raced to a big 5000m best at the Penn Relays. The track season ended at nationals; Nesbit chose not to run the European circuit in order to stay close to her family. Instead she ran the roads, an activity she pursues now "just to fill the gaps" between track and cross country. She won Atlanta's Peachtree race in 32:20. Then, in December, she won her first national title, winning cross country nationals by more than 200 yards.

With many of her North Carolina runners watching, Nesbit surged ahead of the field that included eight-time champion Lynn Jennings. "I put myself out there and said, 'Well, I've done it now.' You can't just slow down and let the pack catch up with you once you make a move like that. Once I broke contact I actually felt this rush of power. I continued to feel stronger with every step, in large part due to the fact that most of my team was there cheering me on."

Despite the fact that she is postponing her next maternity for 1996, Nesbit acknowledges, "At this stage of my career, the Olympic allure is not that thrilling to me. I mean, I just want to run fast. I'm looking more for a type of race rather than a medal or a title. I'm looking for this pure type of race experience.

"It sounds a little esoteric, but I look at it as more of an art. The idea of a double is an exciting challenge to me. It might be the kind of thing that would make the Olympic Trials a more thrilling experience, a more meaningful experience. People tell me I'm nuts, but I think it would be such an awesome challenge to get out there and pound for 15,000m."

She clarifies that the plan of running both the 5000 and the 10,000, scheduled for the same night, is not final. "I'm kicking around the idea. It's a crazy schedule. I think that would make it fun."

And should she make her first Olympic team, what would Nesbit hope for in the Games? "I've been improving, it seems like, weekly," she says. "The curve is pretty vertical right now. So I'm not going to limit myself."

The question really is, can a fun runner who does 45 miles a week compete with those she calls "the big dogs"? She only says, "There's no point in not running a brave race. I want to go after a race effort, not a medal."

Career Stats

Born January 20, 1962 in Fort Wayne, In

5-1/1.55m	98/44kg

East Mecklenberg HS (Charlotte, NC) '80

North Carolina '84

New Balance

PRs (outdoor): 

1500--4:12.40 '92

3000--8:51.92 '92

5000--15:24.68 '95

10,000--32:54.19 '84

PRs (indoor): 

1500--4:21.19 '85

Mile--4:40.17 '89

3000--8:56.08 '95

2 Mile--10:00.02 '85

PRs (road): 

8K--26:27 '89

10K--32:20 '95

10M--54:41 '86

Major Meets:

1982	8h)NCAA 1500

1982	37)NCAA XC

1982	32)USA XC

1983	8h)NCAA Indoor 2M

1983	15)NCAA XC

1983	38)USA XC

1984	7)NCAA Indoor 3000

1984	4)NCAA 10,000

1984	11)USA XC

1985	8)USA Indoor 2M

1985	14)USA XC

1987	11)USA 3000

1988	2)USA 3000

1988	17)Olympic Trials 10,000

1988	13)USA XC

1989	10)USA 3000

1992	5)USA Indoor 3000

1992	12)Olympic Trials 1500

1992	4)Olympic Trials 3000

1992	4)World Cup 3000

1994	3)USA 3000

1994	17)USA XC

1995	3)USA Indoor 3000

1995	3)World Indoor 3000

1995	10h)USA 1500

1995	4)USA 5000

1995	1)USA XC

1996	1)USA Indoor 3000

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