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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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‘I’ll be there for you’

The+Aggie+Cross+Country+team+is+heading+to+the+SEC+Championships.
Photo by Photo by Robert O’Brien

The Aggie Cross Country team is heading to the SEC Championships.

Cymbals crashed. Horns blared. The crowd stood proud, yelling until their voices ran out. As cross country runner Julia Abell, formerly Julia Black, looked around the stadium with her boyfriend and best friend beside her, she felt content. At that moment, Abell said she knew she had made the right decision to attend Texas A&M and join the Aggie family. 

The one where she’s a kid

Abell grew up in a sports-centered family with both her elder siblings being multi-sport athletes. Abell recalled weekend mornings highlighted by a series of questions as to which sibling, which sport and what season they would be attending that day. There was no use in tracking winter, spring, summer or fall, Abell said. The only seasons worth minding were soccer, basketball, football and baseball. 

“I’d go sit on the bench with the team and watch because my mom was the coach,” Abell said. “I would wear my brother’s replica football jersey to school on game days to match him, and he’d come read to my fifth-grade class. The whole family was involved in sports, but we were involved in each other’s sports.”

Abell said from the age she could speak, she could recall all her sibling’s teammates by name and number.When Abell herself began to play sports, her siblings would come to support her. Rather than sleeping in or spending time with their friends, Abell said, her siblings were at her games. The entire family placed their focus on supporting one another.

“My whole family traveled to Portland, [Ore.], for nationals my senior year of high school,” Abell said. “They have traveled all over watching me. It makes it all the more sweet growing up with me watching them and then them watching me [now]. My parents don’t miss meets, which I realize is not the norm. My mom missed one meet and she was devastated, but I know parents don’t always make it to their kids’ stuff, so I’ve been really lucky my parents are able to come to a lot of it.” 

Raised in a multi-sport family, Abell said she did not shy away from playing as many sports as she could. 

“I played soccer, volleyball, basketball, swim team and cross country,” Abell said. “I would do 5Ks growing up. Then, I got into middle school, and I really wanted to do every sport. That was one thing that was really exciting to me about middle school. You didn’t really have to pick or specialize, you could do everything. At the point when I left eighth grade, I think I was the only girl in my middle school that had ever done all six sports.”

Abell said she didn’t find her passion for cross country until middle school when she encountered the school’s record board. With encouragement from her mother and experience from her other sports, Abell became determined to get her name on the board as a record holder in long-distance running. 

“I started training for distance events in middle school,” Abell said. “[I] ended up getting on the record board for the mile and a half by my eighth-grade year.”

When Abell reached high school, she narrowed her focus on soccer and cross country, intending to do both throughout all four years. However, due to a scheduling conflict, instead of switching halfway through her freshman year, Abell remained in cross country. Abell said she quickly discovered that, although she loved both soccer and cross country, she loved running more.

“I realized I had a lot more potential to do really well in cross country than soccer,” Abell said. “My [soccer] club team coach was amazing and let me still be on his team and play while I lived out my dreams of running cross country. He knew I wasn’t going to college for soccer, but he didn’t give up on me, he didn’t cut me and he let me start. I never lost my starting spot. If it wasn’t for him, I would not have been able to do both. I know another soccer coach would have dropped me as soon as I picked cross country, but he never did.”

Jack Gipson coached Abell’s select team in the Classic League in Lake Highlands. Gipson said they got up to the Division 2 level, but it was mostly just a group of friends playing together, so the decision to let Abell continue to play while running was an easy one.

“It was more of a family soccer team,” Gipson said. “We all knew each other, we had all been playing with each other for eight years. Also, with most of the teams we played against, you had to pay two or three thousand, we just paid league fees. I coached the team for free so she could afford to play.”

The one where she makes a decision

Abell did not grow up supporting a big state school. Her father went to trade school and her mother went to Oral Roberts University, a small private university in Oklahoma, so Abell said her family began attending games at A&M, and it quickly became their family school. Despite the enrollment of her siblings, Abell said she was reluctant to join the 12th Man. 

“When I was going through the recruiting process, I really tried to keep an open mind when it came to other schools,” Abell said. “I went through a phase where I didn’t want to go to A&M because everyone expected me to. My sophomore year of high school, my brother was at one of my meets, and he showed me a picture from this A&M girl who was on the team who just posted a picture from a meet, and I remember saying to him, ‘Wow, that would be so cool to run at A&M, if only I was good enough.’”

In Abell’s junior year of high school, she began getting calls from coaches wanting to recruit her. A&M’s cross country and distance running coach Wendel McRaven was the first to reach out. Abell said despite her attempts to keep an open mind, she could not help herself from referring to A&M as “we” and other universities as “they” even weeks away from her decision day.

“I felt if I didn’t go to A&M, I was always going to [ask], ‘Why didn’t I go there?’” Abell said. “I realized a lot of people have their dream school or the school they can do their sport at. Not a lot of people get their dream school and the place that wants them to do their sport.” 

Abell recalled returning home from her final school visit before the commitment deadline, the pressure and anxiety of making a decision hitting full force. All she could think about for 24 hours a day was the recruitment process, Abell said. 

“Looking back, I wish I had been a little more relaxed with [recruitment], but I got really stressed out,” Abell said. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m just going to go to sleep because at least whenever I’m asleep I can’t think about it.’ I remember praying for a clear-cut sign I can’t argue with like in a dream because I was going to keep arguing with it and delaying my decision and second-guessing myself.”

Abell said she woke the next morning and remembered her dream in which future teammate Carrie Fish — with whom she had no strong connection with at the time — told Abell she had committed to A&M and Abell should too. However, Abell said when she called Fish that morning to ask if she made a decision, Fish relayed that she did in factchoose to attend A&M but told no one of her decision.

“That was exactly what I asked for,” Abell said. “So, [my decision] was a mix of, growing up, [A&M] felt like home, and [the dream] was just the nail in the coffin. So, I told [Fish], ‘Guess I’m going to be your teammate.’” 

The one where she joins the Aggie family

Abell said that choosing a sport like running, especially long distance, comes with many people asking “Why?” On the days when it is hard to get up for practice and run, Abell said the choice being out of her hands keeps her moving.

“I chose to [run] in college, but once I made that choice, then it wasn’t a daily choice anymore,” Abell said. “Some days it’s grueling, some days I’d rather not wake up at 6 [a.m.] and some days I’m at practice and I don’t know how I’m going to make it through, but because I don’t have the choice of not doing it, it keeps [me] in it.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic was in full force, Abell said there weren’t many days when she was excited to practice. She was overwhelmed with balancing the team and COVID-19 and lost confidence in her running ability. Abell said it was brutal to go to practice and not want to be there, but by putting on a happy face, pushing through the workouts and focusing on being a good teammate, she pulled herself out of her rut.

“If I had a choice whether I’m [at practice] or not, then who knows if I would’ve made it through that time,” Abell said. “Who knows if I would be running, but because of the fact that I had to be there and I couldn’t let my team down, my coaches down, everybody down, then I got through. You have those days where you’re not feeling it, but you have a lot of days where you’re on a high. You’re with all your best friends at practice, you get to do the thing you love, you think about how you’re at your dream school doing what you love and getting to live out the dream of 16-year-old me thinking, ‘Wow, if only I was good enough.’”

Abell said another aspect of her internal motivation stems from a message her older brother taught her while she was still playing soccer: never ask for a substitution. Abell said she never wants to finish a season with any regrets.

“I don’t want to look back and [think], ‘Man, if only I tried harder at practice or raced harder in that race,’” Abell said. “Don’t take any moment for granted. I wouldn’t ask coach to sit a meet out; if he asks me if I want to take the week off, I always say, ‘Whatever you want me to do,’ because if he wants me to take it off, that’s his call, but I’ll never be the one to say yes because I don’t ever want to look back and wish I could have ran that race.”

Throughout Abell’s time at A&M, she was able to go to events with the cross country donors. Abell said hearing the donors speak about how many season tickets they hold and their excitement for upcoming seasons amazed her because donors work hard for their money and they are donating it so she can attend practice and have a uniform. Abell recalled meeting their kids at events and races and hearing stories of them spending the whole drive talking about meeting her.

“It makes you realize it’s not about you, it’s about everybody else,” Abell said. “It’s about the donors, your teammates, the fans. [Pushing through pressure] is a mix of internal and external [motivation]. You want to be here, and you do it because you want to, but when you get to college it’s no longer, ‘I don’t want to do it today,’ you need to get out there and put on a uniform because a whole lot of people want to see you race. Of course, it’s not as many as football, basketball and baseball, but I’ve realized recently it doesn’t really matter how many people are in the stands, it matters that just one person, one little kid is there that was talking about you on the drive there. That gets you through the hard days.”

 The one where she builds her Aggie family

“The Aggie family is real, and the Aggie network is real,” Abell said. “I was very thankful that I did go to A&M because I’ve known my husband since the fifth grade. We went to school together, but if we went to different schools then who knows. If I had gone to another school, I would have been back racing against Abbey [Santoro], and that was something I never wanted to do again.”

Abell reunited with her future husband, Jacob Abell, after running into him after class during her sophomore year. Julia said it allowed them to restart their friendship after they moved away to college and eventually lead to their relationship. Jacob was the Corps of Cadets Band Commander, in charge of the whole band. Julia said the two of them were as into all things maroon and white as they could have been.

“The Band and Corps are keepers of tradition, so they are the center of A&M,” Julia said. “As someone who grew up with A&M, it was really awesome to be dating someone who was that involved with everything. I was just hanging out with him, but in turn I was at Midnight Yell, Muster, Bonfire [and] Silver Taps. I went to those things before, but it became so much of [my] daily routine. If you’re an Aggie through and through, dating someone in the Corps is great.”

Growing up, Julia and Santoro raced for different middle schools. Both at the top of their respective teams, Julia said they were forced to be rivals. When they went to high school, the pair got to race on the same team and began developing a close bond with one another. Upon their arrival at A&M and addition to the cross country team, Santoro and Julia became roommates and now consider each other best friends. 

“[Our friendship has] meant a lot over the years,” Santoro said. “We never planned to go to the same college when we were looking at schools, so it was a good surprise to find out that we were going to go to college and spend the next four years together as teammates. Our bond from high school translated over into college, especially with racing and training because I know I have another person right there pushing me.”

The last addition to their group of friends was Santoro’s boyfriend and Jacob’s best friend, Will Toronjo, who at the time was Jacob’s right hand man and the Corps of Cadets’ Drum Major. Julia said the two of them introduced Santoro and Toronjo and they became a group of four attending banquets, dances, events and games altogether. At the Abells’ wedding, Santoro and Toronjo served as the maid of honor and the best man.

“Being at A&M is literally a dream come true,” Julia said. “I’m with my boyfriend, now husband, my best friend at a school doing what I love, getting a degree. It does not get better than this, and I truly believe it would not be better than that at any other school. I don’t know a better place where you’re going to surround yourself with people who support you and push you to be where you want to be, and not just my friends and Jacob, but the academic staff, the coaching staff, the professors, the donors, the fans, it’s everybody in the Aggie family. I can’t imagine going to another school.”

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