Illini of the Decade: #4 Angela Bizzarri

Bode Miller was a bust in the 2006 Olympic Games. David Beckham got sent off the field during England’s elimination from the 1998 World Cup. The 2005 Illinois men’s basketball team failed to win the national championship.

Ask any great athlete what his or her lowest low is, and most will have one. But women’s cross country head coach Jeremy Rasmussen said Angela Bizzarri may not.

“To be quite honest, I go back and I try to think about what I would say her biggest disappointment is, and I don’t know if I can think of one,” he said.

Now in her senior year, Bizzarri has yet to fall short of the lofty expectations one can expect of someone who women’s track and field head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey recently called “hands down the best distance runner in the history of this school.”

Having faced next to no disappointment, Bizzarri has instead made a point of surpassing expectations. Her earliest memory of doing so, and perhaps the foundation of her legacy at Illinois, occurred in 2008.

Bizzarri’s outdoor track season was drawing to a close, and she had advanced to the NCAA Championships in the 5,000 meters. With nationals approaching, the then-sophomore held tempered expectations for herself.

“At that point, I wasn’t really sure how well I’d do,” Bizzarri said. “I knew I’d run it pretty fast, but comparing my times to a lot of other people on the list, I was still in the middle, if not pretty far down.”

Bizzarri had never run the 5,000 as a freshman and had competed in it just twice before the 2008 NCAA Regionals. Heading into nationals, her personal-best time of 16 minutes, 16.43 seconds was the second-fastest in Illinois history, but it was only middle of the pack compared to her competition.

Toward the end of the championship race, there was no doubt who would win. Texas Tech’s Sally Kipyego set an NCAA record after finishing in 15:15.08. But the next athlete to cross the finish line was wearing Illini orange and blue.

Thirty-one seconds behind Kipyego but more than 30 seconds ahead of her own previous personal-best, Bizzarri finished runner-up at nationals.

“That was really my biggest ‘oh my gosh,’ moment,” Jeremy Rasmussen, women’s cross country head coach, said. “Since then, there’s been some, but that’s probably been the biggest.”

Though surprised, Rasmussen knew before that race that Bizzarri could be something special.

She had already earned First Team All-Big Ten and All-American honors in cross country during her rookie season in 2006. She also ran the second-fastest outdoor 1,500 meters (4:20.96) in Illinois history, produced the third-fastest 6K in cross country (20:26) and came within a respectable 20 seconds of the cross country 5K school record (16:36).

While Bizzarri had churned out great results as a freshman, Rasmussen said when he took over as the Illinois distance coach in 2007, Bizzarri’s running mechanics were simply not good.

“We said we’ve got a really good engine, a really good competitor. We need to put these other pieces of the puzzle together and put together a monster,” he said. “And she’s turned out to be a pretty good monster.”

Rasmussen first realized his success in creating a monster with the conclusion of Bizzarri’s 2008 runner-up finish. But for the mainstream, recognizing her potential has taken much longer.

“I would like to think that was the time people kind of saw ‘Whoa OK, Angela is for real.’ But really, I mean, she won the national cross country title this year and people were still writing her off,” Rasmussen said. Teammate Elizabeth Boyle said the two-time national champion and eight-time All-American may be underrated because of her personality.

“She’s very humble and doesn’t draw attention to herself, so that could be one reason I guess,” Boyle said.

The quiet girl from Mason, Ohio, may not attract very much national attention, but teammate Kristen Sutherland said Bizzarri’s down-to-earth personality is one of the best things about her.

“She’s not like a0 psycho-crazy runner,” Sutherland said. “She’ll take her easy days, she’ll do her hard stuff hard and she does everything right. So I guess it shows you that if you put the work in, you’ll get results.”

However, the amount of work Bizzarri has put in has caught some flak on the national scene.

Bizzarri averages roughly 50 miles per week in practice, which is considered low mileage. Rasmussen said she runs less to get the most out of training while still avoiding risk of injury as she perfects her form. But after she won the 5,000 meters national title in 2008, Rasmussen’s relatively unorthodox style came under fire.

“People were saying all sorts of stuff like, ‘Coach is crazy because she should be running 70 to 90 miles a week or 100 miles a week as good as she is,’” Rasmussen said.

Whether because of her training or in spite of it, Bizzarri has exhibited a consistency throughout her career that Rasmussen said is very rare among distance runners.

But Bizzarri’s relatively low profile may be a good thing, Sutherland said, as she has not felt a tremendous increase in outside expectations, even after she consistently executes at the highest levels.

“I think maybe that’s better for her, that she doesn’t have (outside) expectations,” Sutherland said. “But obviously she’s won nationals and stuff, so there’s always going to be expectations. I’m sure she probably gets more nervous now that she has accomplished so much because she feels like she has to stand up to it, but she’s the most modest person and she’s always relaxed.”

Perhaps Bizzarri’s consistency can be attributed to her competitiveness. Though it is hard to dig through Bizzarri’s modesty, Rasmussen said inside is an intense competitor who hates losing.

“Even though she doesn’t say it, I know she really relishes the fact that she likes to get in at the end of a race, and get in with the best and beat them … She’s mentioned to me before that she hates somebody running her down in the last 200 or 400 (meters), she hates it,” Rasmussen said.

Bizzarri’s hate of getting outrun at the end of a race has contributed to her kick, in which she drastically picks up her speed toward the end. Bizzarri’s kick has become her signature move, Rasmussen said, and forces her competition to have a huge lead at the end of the race to come out on top.

“People have got to run the hard way in order to beat her,” Rasmussen said. “You’ve got to press really hard from the beginning in order to have a chance to beat her.”

Whether it be her kick, her drive both athletically and academically — she is a molecular and cellular biology major and five-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree — or simply her grounded personality, Bizzarri will be remembered fondly as an Illini, Rasmussen said.

But he also said, especially after she won the cross country national title last fall, she is continuing to set herself up to be remembered by others as well.

“People are starting to realize that Angela is pretty good, that she’s one of the better distance runners that’s come around for quite a while, and so I think for her to be able to have that and to create ‘the house that Angela built,’ would be a pretty staggering thing,” Rasmussen said. “But once again, I think people will remember her for that quiet little girl that ran really fast and had a monster kick.”