When Blanca Fernandez stands in a crowd of her competitors before each race, she imagines herself sitting down to begin a game of chess.
As a tactic to clear her head, the León, Spain native envisions herself alone at a chessboard, away from the anxiety of the impending race.
“The warm up and last five minutes before you start a race, I’m so nervous,” Fernandez said. “When you’re nervous, all the functions in your body work differently. … I always wonder why am I’m not doing whatever else?”
This weekend, Fernandez took first place at the Paul Short Invitational, with a time of 20 minutes, 27 seconds. Fernandez, who did not compete in the Duquesne Duals Sept. 5, has won her first three meets of the season with the Jack St. Clair Memorial Invitational and Princeton Invitational the only events remaining before preparing for the American Athletic Conference Championships Oct. 31.
This success, however, was supposed to start last fall.
Before the beginning of the 2014 cross country season, coach Elvis Forde and assistant coach James Snyder didn’t think Fernandez would ever make it to Temple.
After graduating from University of León, Fernandez wanted to come to the United States to earn a master’s degree in sports business. She applied to Temple and communicated with Snyder through social media about enrolling in the fall.
International students applying to Temple, like Fernandez, have to score a 79 or better on the Test of English as a Foreign Language or score a 6.0 or better on the International English Language Testing System.
“We had planned for Blanca to enroll in August of last year,” Snyder said. “The big thing she talked about coming over here was improving her English, but her score initially wasn’t high enough to be admitted into school.”
After failing her first English proficiency test, the 23-year-old senior graduate student decided to take intensive English courses. Two months later, she passed her exam and enrolled the following semester.
“In most situations like this, international students decide to give up and not come here,” Snyder said. “It was kind of a unique situation for us. As we saw more and more last year, she started to become more comfortable to the point where she’s not only a great part of our team but a great part of the university.”
In her third week as a student last spring, Fernandez won her first meet at the Patriot Games. Ten months later, she has accumulated seven victories in indoor and outdoor track and cross-country. Last year, Fernandez became the first Temple woman in 32 years to qualify for the indoor NCAA Championship and the first in 30 years to qualify for the outdoor NCAA Championship.
“Blanca’s accomplishments last year were certainly impressive,” Snyder said.” The goal moving forward is to build off that and move forward. She puts herself in winning positions.”
This season, Fernandez has averaged a mile speed of 5:33.4, according to flotrack.org. For the remainder of the season, Fernandez will attempt to be the first Temple women’s runner to qualify for the NCAA Championships, and she believes she can finish inside the Top 15.
“You always want to race,” Fernandez said. “It’s why you work every day of the week. I know it’s tough and difficult, but dreaming is free.”
Mark McCormick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MarkJMcCormick.