Building A Champion: Juli Accurso

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Every Monday morning, three-time defending Mid-American Conference Champion, Juli Accurso wakes up before the sun rises to get ready for her day. She meanders down the brick streets of downtown Athens, yoga mat in hand. The only people in sight are some of her fellow teammates still rubbing the sleepiness out of their eyes as they all meet.

As they walk up the stairs, the bright lights overhead are a stark contrast to the almost pitch black of the outside world. The team convenes in the waiting room to get physically and mentally prepared for a yoga session by leaving their shoes and problems at the door.

Once inside the room the yoga instructor, Elizabeth Rhodes, has everyone open up their minds and bodies to the welcoming practice of yoga. Everything begins with breathing, almost in a rhythm to relax the mind, body and soul. Inside the dimly-lit room, everyone begins to look inside themselves. While inhaling, everyone's nostrils are filled with an herbal aroma straight from somewhere deep in the woods.

Every movement that Accurso does is accompanied by an inhale or exhale. Sometimes this movement is simply sitting and focusing on the inner self but they can get a lot more complex. Some motions involve the twisting and turning of the core which causes every muscle, some that are hardly ever felt, to twinge. Most of the positions elongate the body to cause stretching through every extremity.

Throughout the 45-minute session, it seems as though every muscle in the body gets pulled as far as possible. When Rhodes offers an easier alternative if a participant does not want to push herself too far, Accurso chooses to stick to the harder, more challenging positions.

Accurso seems to carry this philosophy throughout life. She almost never cuts corners or takes the easy way out. She is constantly striving to become a better version of her, on and off the field of competition.

"In this sport … there is no comfort zone, she is always outside of her comfort zone," Ohio coach Clay Calkins said. Calkins has been Accurso's coach for both cross-country and track for all of her award-winning tenure at Ohio University.

Accurso, along with the six others in attendance, leaves after her session and is prepared to face a long week of running with a relaxed mind and body. As she comes close to the door, the sun finally shows itself and begins to heat everything up, even though her muscles are already warm. There are a few people out strolling slowly to their early morning classes.

Waking up early on a continual basis can make a person struggle throughout her days and Accurso is not entirely an exception to the rule. Instead of springing out of bed every morning and being instantly prepared for the day, Accurso simply thinks, Alright, what do I need to do today? Let's get going. Even though the early mornings are trying, she plows through them.

Accurso heads back to her house, along with her housemate and fellow teammate, senior Melissa Thompson.

"The things that make Juli a good roommate and living with Juli is the fact that she is one of my close friends and I get to be with her not only at practice or lifting, but at home too," Thompson said.

While everyone in her house either drifts back to sleep or continues to dream, Accurso cooks herself breakfast. While she cooks, she makes herself some hot tea for the caffeine to propel her through the day. This drive to always get better helped Accurso set her high school's all-time record for the 5-kilometer event.

Accurso loves cooking almost as much as running. One of Accurso's admitted favorite things of life is "Two Fat Ladies," a cooking show that came out in 1996 hosted by two British women. Accurso has all of the episodes on DVD.

Watching this show helps Accurso learn about cooking, which is one of her favorite parts of the experience. She also enjoys cooking for other people. She usually devotes a day every weekend to cooking, that is when she doesn’t have a meet to attend.

"I really like to cook and I like learning about it, so I'll make something," she said of off weekends. "Like last week I made two big batches of soup."

Leading up to Accurso's first class, the morning is filled with eggs, oatmeal or French toast, studying, and finishing homework. Accurso has scattered her walls with pictures of foreign places. Majoring in French, she is very open to other places and cultures. Alongside pictures of places abroad are maps of other countries and pictures of family and friends.

Accurso has been named MAC Women's Scholar Athlete of the Week four times in her career, three times for cross-country and one for track. She was also named to the Academic All-America Third Team, the first woman runner to do so in Bobcat history. Adding to her academic honors, she was a United States Track and Field and Cross-Country Coaches Association All-Academic individual in 2011 for cross-country and in 2012 for track and cross-country.

Accurso has surrounded herself with positive messages in her room and around her house to help motivate her for everything she does. One of her favorite sayings, which she also has hanging in her room, is "If you do what you always did, then you will get what you always got." Accurso applies this to running along with her interpersonal relationships. She hopes to improve in every aspect of her life as each day passes.

"I apply that to the classroom and homework and studying, and just being a good person to others," Accurso said. "That’s one of my favorite ones."

Every Monday, with the tender feeling from yoga still radiating throughout her body, Accurso attends her team's afternoon practice. After a stretching period, the team, who set a goal to win the MAC title as a team this year (eventually falling short), sets out on a two-mile warm up. The team uses Monday, Wednesday and Friday practices as running workouts. The team either does consecutive sprints or mile repeats.

Following the running workout, Accurso usually makes her way to the weight room where she does a short routine to work on her core and upper body. She rounds out her active day with stretches and heads for home. After dinner she finishes homework and studying before going to bed rather early in order to attain enough hours of sleep to function because it seems every morning starts earlier than the next.

Accurso devotes, on average, about two hours and 45 minutes each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to bettering herself as a runner during the team activities. This shows the true dedication to getting better and reaching her goal time of below 20 minutes for a 6-kilometer event. Her personal record for a 6-K race is 20:07.

 Every Tuesday morning begins with an early team workout. Each of these mornings, Accurso thinks, Is it really 5:40? The whole women's cross-country team gathers in the weight room for a core and upper body workout. The exercises are all already pre-planned and explained by strength coach, Tim Sykes. Everyone on the team does their share of pull-ups and squats to the sound of Eminem.

During the entire workout, Accurso never backs away from any of the exercises. She tries everything to the best of her ability even if she cannot get it the first couple times. When she has a question she isn't afraid to ask for clarification from any of the coaches. Accurso puts everything she can muster into the workout to help herself. Helping herself isn't the only goal of the session as she helps spot teammates or grabs weights for them.

After the 45-minute workout, most of the team goes for a run before the sun even rises. Accurso, along with sophomore Kayla Scott, runs 10 miles after every morning workout. Upon starting, it is still pitch black and the area is surrounded by a fog. Because there is no sun there is no warmth but Accurso runs no matter what. Sometimes she will run around on the turf of Peden Stadium or around the Athens area or sometimes a combination of the two for this run.

As the sun rises, the fog remains for most of the run. Around the third mile there  are a few rays of light trying to break through the dense fog. It's around this time that the first birds of the morning can be heard. These birds seem to be calling back and forth to each other to wake everyone up but by this point Accurso has been up, finished a workout and ran three miles.

Finally, around mile six, there seems to be more light than dark and Accurso can no longer see her breath. Once she has traveled about eight miles, the fog has finally dissipated and the sun can finally shine through. As if 10 miles isn't enough for one morning, Accurso heads across campus back to her house and sometimes she even jogs back to be in the warmth sooner.

Accurso can almost always be seen running. With the pain from the morning run still emanating throughout every muscle in her body, she continues to run. Although all of her body's muscles are tensed up from the frigid temperatures, she still fights this and runs home.

"She has learned to overcome," Calkins said. "You know, maybe it's a high pain threshold, I don’t know."

Once home, Accurso sets a kettle of water on the stove to warm it up for some more tea. In the meantime, she has some chocolate milk for the protein value after her morning workout. After the tea heats up, she carries it to her room and commences with her homework session. About mid-morning she makes breakfast for herself before heading back to the books. She then has a few hours of classes followed by an afternoon run.

Because 10 miles wasn’t enough for one day, Accurso runs about five miles around the Athens area in the afternoon to add to her mile count. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Juli adds about another four hours to furthering her running ability. After the run she heads home again for the night. Because Tuesdays start so early, Accurso heads to bed even earlier than the night before.

Accurso continues this rigorous schedule throughout the whole week. A normal person might let the augmentation of the pain throughout the week affect them. Accurso almost never takes a day off from bettering her running. Even on the weekends she still runs. Every Sunday morning she is up sometimes before the sun is and is out running before most people on campus even think about waking up.

"I love her work ethic and I try to mimic that," Scott said.

Accurso continuously runs. She always thinks about what she can be doing to help her reach her personal goals and also her season goals for the team.

"[Accurso is] very team-oriented," Calkins said. "I think this is one of the tightest-knit groups of men and women we have had as far as a team unit."

"MAC Championship as a team. Period." This was Accurso's most coveted prize. She continually worked toward this and encouraged her team to do the same. Though the team fell short, finishing fifth at the conference championship, Accurso picked up her third consecutive MAC individual title with a time of 20:37.46 (two seconds shy of  the championship record, which she set), completing the three-peat dating back to her sophomore season.

Accurso definitely does not find herself shy in the accolade department. She has been successful from the start back in high school at Miami East in Casstown, Ohio.

Accurso set her high school's all-time record in 2009 with a time of 18:45, about a minute and a half shorter than the next closest time. At the time she set the record it was about two minutes and 45 seconds faster than the second-place runner.

In comparison to current runners and alumni of Miami East, Accurso is the only woman to qualify for the state competition and she is also the only woman to qualify for the regional event three times. All of these stats are compared to those accumulated since 1995.

Accurso reached the district event in all four years and going from freshman to senior year she finished fourth, 55th (she was injured), sixth and second overall. As a freshman, she captured the 27th overall position in the regional event. Her junior year she finished 44th overall in the same event and followed that up senior year with a fifth overall place at the regional contest her senior year. This finish propelled Accurso to the state meet where she finished seventh overall for Division III schools.

"I think the largest women's team we ever had [in high school] was three people, so it was very, very close-knit," she said. "I was very close with the guys which was nice and overall it was great because I learned a lot. It was like four years of learning and ups and downs and it was great because I think it prepared me well for college. I was able to grow a lot from it and that was great."

Just as in high school, Accurso hasn’t shied away from tough competition and has reigned in many awards. Even as a sophomore, she captured the MAC individual title with a time of 20:35.3 which helped her get First Team All-MAC honors. In the Great Lakes Regional event in 2011, Accurso claimed the sixth place with a time of 20:40.8.

Accurso's career really took off her junior year when she took home the Great Lakes Regional Runner of the Year to cap off her season. In this event she set a school and personal record with a time of 20:07.0. She also won her second straight individual MAC title in her junior year. At the national event, Accurso placed 38th overall and with this place, and her season's accolades, she earned All-American honors.

With all of these noteworthy awards, Accurso continues to strive to make herself better. She doesn’t let all these awards get to her head and inflate her ego.

 "She is a quiet leader and she has a drive in her every day, whether it's an easy day or workout, she gets it done," Scott said.

Even outside of the competition or even team setting, Accurso continues to run. Every time that she travels home, she and her father always make sure to set out for a run together. This running mindset has rubbed off onto her mother as she just finished her first marathon, just two years after her first 5-kilometer event.

Accurso always seems to have a positive, caring attitude. She even carries this attitude when things get rough in races or when she is in pain during a race.

"There is a constant monologue going on in my mind. I'm just kind of giving myself directions, Okay now do this, let's do this now, stay positive," she said.

Coming in the near future for Accurso is life after college. She plans on going to graduate school but isn't sure where or for what yet. Accurso doesn’t plan on stopping her running career anytime soon.

 "I would love to continue running and so it would be really nice to by that time accomplish some big goals like lowering my 5-K time and maybe qualifying for Olympic trials and maybe making it on a US championship team," she said.

As for now, Accurso simply focuses on what to do every day to better herself and her team. She constantly strives for the best for her and her teammates. The senior has finished her time with Ohio Cross-Country, but leaves the Bobcats with a large legacy to live up to.

Although Accurso is constantly running, she seems to never get tired of what she does best.

"There is something really special on a Saturday morning, waking up to a really crisp breeze and the smell of leaves in the air and then sharing that with the team," she said.

Accurso has found success in almost everything she does. She constantly sees a challenge and works until it's accomplished. Even though Accurso is great at what she does, she still enjoys the little parts of life and appreciates the time she has with those close to her.