One-third through the biggest race of her life, Kamila Soja lost her left shoe when another runner accidentally stepped on the back of her foot.
Soja, a sophomore biology/pre-med student at Nova Southeastern University, was running in the NCAA Division II cross-country national championships in Seattle on Friday. She ran the final 4K of that 6K race with just a sock on her freezing left foot.
The “freezing” comment is not hyperbole. There was snow on the ground when Soja and NSU coach Bryan Hagopian arrived in Seattle last week. By race time, the temperature had “warmed” to 31 degrees, and the snow had turned to mud.
“As soon as my shoe came off,” Soja said, “I wanted to cry.”
Soja resisted the urge. Instead, she considered retrieving her shoe, but she quickly decided against that plan.
“I would first have to find the shoe,” she said. “I’d have to take off my gloves (that she wore due to the cold) and untie the laces. Then I could put on the shoe and tie it tight, and all that would’ve cost me at least 45 seconds.”
Soja was understandably emotional.
“I thought it was a nightmare,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Not at nationals.’ I had worked all season to get to this point, and now I lose my shoe?
“But as the race went on, I was passing girls. I was still in it, and I just wanted to finish as fast as possible.”
Soon after crossing the finish line, Soja collapsed into the arms of her mother, Elizabeth.
Soja, who set the NSU 6K record with her time of 21 minutes .39.1 seconds at regionals, finished at 22.12.4 in Seattle. Out of a field of 262 runners, she finished in 115th, which was amazing considering her shoeless status.
“She ran great,” Hagopian said. “I’m proud of how she persevered through the adversity.”
The only thing more surprising than Soja’s perseverance on a frigid Seattle day is the fact that she is a college runner at all.
A native of Chiopee, Massachusetts, Soja was an active high school athlete. She played soccer in the fall, swam in the winter and did the pole vault in the spring. She also rooted for all the Boston teams, including Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox and Patriots.
Running, though, was way down on her list of activities.
But with no scholarship offers to compete in any of her three sports, she set her sights on NSU as a non-athlete student.
However, two of her high school coaches, Adam Tanguay (track) and Kyle Tereaso (pole vault), urged her to contact Hagopian.
Soja took their advice, emailing her pole vault numbers to Hagopian. She also had a bit of experience running the mile, so she also sent those times to the NSU email address.
The next day, Soja got a call from Hagopian, and she was essentially on the team as a walk-on runner. Nothing else was available to her because NSU doesn’t have pole vault.
Once she arrived at NSU, she was way behind her teammates.
“Those girls were running 40 miles per week,” Soja said. “I could barely do six.”
That would soon change.
By the end of her freshman season, she shocked herself by becoming NSU’s second-best runner on a roster of about 30 women.
“The rate of improvement surprised me and everyone else on the team, too,” Soja said.
This year, Soja earned first-team All-Sunshine State Conference, and that’s just the beginning, according to her coach.
“Over the next two years, I think she can be a conference champ and No. 1 in the South Region,” Hagopian said. “If she continues to develop, she could possibly become the first cross-country All-American in NSU history, male or female.”
Once she completes her NSU eligibility in two years, Soja will zero in on her career goal of becoming an emergency room trauma doctor.
“My mind is open to other specialties,” Soja said. “But I’ve always been fairly calm in stressful situations.”
She certainly proved that in Seattle.