“I told myself I had to start faster in the races, I had to be less shy—everybody has two legs and two arms, so no big deal. Why not try?”
The recorded high in Terre Haute, Ind. on Nov. 23, 2013, was 34 degrees Fahrenheit, with a low of 19. Muddy trails and steady winds made conditions punishingly cold for the 254 women running at the NCAA Division I Championships. Terre Haute was far from home for Liv Westphal: 4,290 miles, to be exact. The only athlete representing Boston College at the race, Westphal finish 17th in the country last season, completing the 6k circuit with a time of 20:30. And with that, she made her way onto the All-American Honor Roll for cross county track.
Westphal was not all American, and moving to the U.S. in August of 2011, she had her doubts of whether she would even make it to Christmas.
Born in Milan, Italy, Westphal moved to France at age four, growing up just 200 miles outside of Paris in Limoges. A dual citizen of Italy and France, she began racing competitively at age 15 while studying in Spain for eight months. By the time BC recruited Westphal to the women’s cross country and track teams, she was already a two-time National Junior Champion in France, ranked sixth in the country.
Westphal made her decision to move across the Atlantic after only briefly speaking over the phone with BC track coach Randy Thomas. When she arrived in the U.S. late summer before her freshman year, it was her first time visiting Boston and meeting the people with whom she would spend her next four-plus years. She made no official visit to the University before arriving to move in, and began classes with only limited English proficiency. The decision was rash, but to Westphal, it just made sense.
“I’d always kind of been all around the world, and American universities have a very good reputation abroad,” Westphal said. “It gave me the ability to combine good academics with really good athletics.”
When it comes to race strategy, Westphal emphasized the importance of a strong start. “I think it’s easier to lose some places than to gain a lot,” she said.
Adapting to life in a new country, however, Westphal was forced to start well behind the line. In France, high schools do not traditionally offer athletic programs, so Westphal had done most of her training independently before arriving in the U.S. She had graduated at the top of her class in France, and she did so with few of her teachers knowing she was a nationally ranked runner. Quickly departing from this sense of independence, Westphal found herself depending on her team as a safety net when adjusting to life in Boston.
She was one of four freshmen on the women’s cross country team, and the only international student in the group. It was her conversations with teammates that allowed her to break the language barrier in the first few months, and her time with the group that dissuaded any doubts she had about the sudden move to the U.S. “I struggled like every freshman here—especially on a sports team—and then a double amount because of the language barrier and the entirely new context,” Westphal said. “Having the team gave a really nice cohesion, and I think that’s what I was missing in France.”
Westphal saw consistent, albeit slight improvements as a runner her first two seasons. She pushed her way to the top position on the BC team by sophomore year, but as an individual, she only saw small improvements to her times. “When you go from sixth in France to being 70th or 80th here, it’s an adjustment,” Westphal said.
Last year was a breakthrough in Westphal’s cross country career. She ended outdoor track season with a personal record of 16:22 in the 5k, securing second in her event at the ECAC Championships. And then soon after the close of her season with BC, she finished fifth in the 5k at the European Czech Championships. “I really wasn’t expecting it,” Westphal said. “So in summer 2013, I thought, ‘Oh actually, I might be able to do something for cross country this year.’”
Westphal opened her cross country season that year coming in first at a UMass 5k invitational with a time of 16:44, carrying the momentum of a strong spring season in track. She went on to push the women’s cross country team to close the season at sixth in the ACC.
The women’s cross country team is off to a strong start this season. It’s a far younger team than the one to which Westphal arrived in 2011, and it now includes four international students. In an upset victory, the No. 17 team placed fourth at the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown race late last month, and it hopes to continue bucking expectations heading into the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational Friday.
“Coast-to-Coast Battle was a very good meet from a qualitative point of view,” Westphal said. “But Wisconsin is very different from a quantitative point of view.” Twenty-two of the top 30 teams in the division will be represented at the meet, meaning the outcome will be particularly telling of how BC will close out the season.
Westphal’s strategy for races has evolved since her underclass years. She starts a little faster, only letting up her pace a little bit mid-race. “The start is my greatest fear,” Westphall said. She hesitates. “Well, not fear, but it’s hard to describe the start—especially in big races like Wisconsin this weekend or nationals, because if you just screw up your start, then you start as 80th or 100th.”
In cross country, it’s easier to lose some places than to gain a lot. Westphal is arriving at another unknown these last months of her senior year. She plans to stay at BC for a fifth year, earning a master’s in business administration, but from there, the course is unmarked. Westphal is unsure whether she will stay in the U.S., or go on to seek out running professionally in France.
She’s now an All-American runner, but still caught in that strange place between Boston and France.
According to Westphal, the most challenging part of running a 5k is the late middle stretch. “I think the hardest k is the third or the fourth—that’s where you have to stay tough,” Westphal said. “After then, you just try to finish as fast as you can.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Westphal as being being born in Milan, Germany rather than Milan, Italy.
Featured Photo Illustration by John Wiley / Heights Graphic