Saturday, July 20

Freshman cross country star, former cheerleader surpasses expectations

Freshman Erika Adler recalls visiting UCLA and falling in love with the school, but she never thought she'd be wearing blue and gold as a cross country athlete. (MacKenzie Coffman/Daily Bruin)

Freshman Erika Adler recalls visiting UCLA and falling in love with the school, but she never thought she'd be wearing blue and gold as a cross country athlete. (MacKenzie Coffman/Daily Bruin)

On most evenings in the fall of 2015, high school cheerleader Erika Adler finished her homework and got ready to run. It was for fun – that was how she always ran, with her father biking beside her.

As a junior in high school, Adler had never competed in an organized cross country race. She would be one of the three fastest high school runners in California within a year.

The UCLA freshman grew up playing soccer and always had a competitive streak. Her father, Jeff Adler, said a teacher took notice when Erika Adler passed many of her classmates, including the boys, at a school jog-a-thon in sixth grade.

“And the teacher said, ‘You know what? I bet that talent is going to take her places,’” Jeff Adler said.

But it took a push from him to turn his daughter’s competitiveness toward racing.

“We would go (on runs) … just having fun, going exploring,” Erika Adler said. “My dad would be like, ‘Oh, you’re really good,’ and I was like, ‘Dad, you’re just saying that because you’re my parent.’ But he was like, ‘No, I think you should really try out.’”

So Adler showed up at Northwood High’s track tryouts in the winter of her junior year. At first, she doubted her ability to keep up with the team.

“‘I’m not good, they run every single day, this is crazy,’” she said she remembers thinking.

That day, Adler clocked a mile in under six minutes and never looked back.

“I really liked the team and the coaches, and I just really fell in love with the sport, right then and there,” Adler said.

Adler’s 2016 track season culminated in a 12th-place finish at her section preliminaries. To stay in shape for the following season, Adler decided to try cross country in the fall of her senior year.

The second cross country race of Adler’s life was at the Woodbridge Classic. She came in first.

But her time would have placed her 45th in the more prestigious Woodbridge Sweepstakes race, and no colleges had taken note of the former cheerleader.

Adler decided in late fall that she wanted to try to pursue running in college.

“I would email every coach, and they would be like, ‘Who is this girl?’… I got answers that were like, ‘Oh, well you have to hit this time to be in a D1 school,’ and they kind of just pushed me aside,” she said.

A collegiate career started to feel more tangible when Adler won the Pacific Coast League in the November of the senior year. She followed that up with a top-five finish at the Southern Section finals. A week later, Adler competed at the California Interscholastic Federation State Championships.

She recorded the third-fastest overall time out of 986 girls.

The performance qualified her for the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Oregon, a race she had never even heard of.

Late one night, Adler’s telephone rang. It was a friend of her coach who knew Forest Braden, then the head cross country coach in Westwood. UCLA was interested.

Adler said she first fell in love with the school on a family trip when she was 12, but she left the trip thinking she would never get into a top university like UCLA.

Adler’s father remembers another trip, in Adler’s junior year, when she and her sister saw the campus again.

“When we were leaving, their faces were plastered against the glass window in the car, and they looked up … and said, ‘This is where we want to go’,” Jeff Adler said.

Erika Adler’s quick rise from an unknown to a nationals qualifier drew attention from other schools too. Baylor, UC Berkeley and Oregon all expressed interest. But in the end, Adler chose the school she had dreamed of attending.

Adler began training with UCLA in the summer of 2017. She said the transition wasn’t too challenging, but now she was surrounded by runners who had all put up impressive times in high school.

“Basically, I had no expectations,” Adler said. “I wanted to see what I could do. … I just have that competitiveness in me.”

A new set of coaches joined the team for Adler’s first season in Westwood. Assistant coach Jennifer DeRego took charge of the women’s cross country team in August 2017. And DeRego, a former U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier, saw something familiar in Adler.

“She reminded me a lot of myself when I was a freshman in college,” DeRego said. “It was a learning curve for her.”

In high school, DeRego was a basketball player who ran to stay in shape. Like Adler, she only joined cross country in her senior year after friends on the team encouraged her to try it out.

“I ran cross country and just met a whole new side of life, and sports, that I never even knew existed,” DeRego said.

This year, DeRego has tried to help Adler form manageable goals, which DeRego said were important to her own development once she realized what it meant to run in a college program.

DeRego said she encouraged Adler to focus on running with her teammates.

“Don’t be leading it, don’t be ahead, but just maintain contact with these girls that are seasoned,’” DeRego said.

Then Adler finished second for UCLA in her debut collegiate race. Her next time out, she finished first.

All told, she led the team in three out of five season races, including the Pac-12 Championships.

Adler’s season-ending race at the West Regional finals, though, left her feeling less than satisfied.

“I was upset, just because I felt like I let my team down,” she said.

But Adler battled three injuries during that race. Her calf and Achilles gave her trouble and to make matters worse, she was spiked in the shin on the starting line, for which she later received stitches.

Adler said it was the most pain she’d ever dealt with in a race. Yet she still placed third on the team and was 60th out of 241 total runners.

That finish – and all of Adler’s success – doesn’t surprise those closest to her, who know about the emails she sent to coaches, the evening runs after she finished her homework and the sixth-grade jog-a-thon.

“She’s a competitor,” Jeff Adler said. “She’s tough. … But it’s going to do her well, because you learn a lot of life’s lessons, I always say, through sports.”

Even DeRego, who has known Adler for less than a year, said she is not surprised by the freshman’s achievements. Because DeRego’s experiences parallel Adler’s, she knows what it takes to rise quickly in the sport.

But for now Adler will recover. And when she returns home this winter, she said, chances are she’ll go for a run with her dad.

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