May 13, 2011
By Clare Lochary
New York Times
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Jess Palacio, a junior middle-distance runner, is a rarity among United States Naval Academy midshipmen, and not just for the four university track and field records she holds or the nine Patriot League championships she has won.
The cross-country coach Karen Boyle, who is in her 24th season at Navy, said Palacio was the only previously enlisted athlete her program has ever had.
Palacio, 24, joined the Marine Corps after high school, serving for two and a half years and attaining the rank of corporal before enrolling at Annapolis. Out of 4,400 midshipmen, only 183 were previously enlisted in a branch of the military. Of those, only 22 are women.
Palacio has a mean kick that she uses to separate herself from opponents -- she will sit on the leader for most of a race and then break out in the home stretch. Her most recent program record was set May 7 at the Patriot League championships, where she won the 1,500 meters in 4 minutes 22.58 seconds. This season, she had a 2:07.22 finish in the outdoor 800 at Princeton's Larry Ellis Invitational, breaking a 27-year record, previously the longest-standing mark in Navy outdoor track history. She has been named Patriot League track athlete of the meet in the last three league championships.
Palacio's next goal is to reach the N.C.A.A. championships in her individual events. She is set to run the 800 at the Eastern College Athletic Conference championships Saturday and is likely to qualify in both the 800 and 1,500 for the N.C.A.A. East Regionals, which begin May 26. Navy has not sent a runner to nationals since Kim McGreevy in 1995.
Initially, Palacio just liked to run. She took to the hills surrounding her hometown, Sun Valley, Nev., to burn off the stress of daily life, running without timer or technique or any kind of goal.
"It was the one time in the day I could relax," she said. "Even though the workouts were stressful, it was comforting to do. It takes your mind off everything else."
Her high school track coach, Ron Cross, got a tip from a middle school teacher that Palacio had potential as an athlete, but it took two years to convince her to run for Spanish Springs High School. Cross bought Palacio her first pair of running spikes, a cheap pair with a black-and-yellow tiger stripe pattern, and she used them to set school records in the 800 and 1,600. "Very few kids love to run the way that Jess loves to run," Cross said.
Palacio's route then wound through Parris Island, S.C., for basic training after she enlisted in the Marine Corps in November 2005, six months after her high school graduation.
"I wanted to continue my education, and I needed the military to do it," she said. "I'd always heard that the best of the best was the Marine Corps, and I loved working out and travel, so they were the ones who caught my attention."
Palacio trained as a hygiene equipment officer, helping to ensure that base shower facilities and water purification functioned smoothly. She got her first foreign assignment at Camp Hansen in Okinawa.
The weather at Camp Hansen is so humid that newcomers wear different colored shirts than the rest of the Marines for the first month of their assignments so commanding officers know not to overwork them in fitness tests. Palacio, accustomed to desert heat, ignored the warnings and went on a hard run during her first week. She ended up curled up on the side of the road with dehydration cramps as passing Marines jeered her for her hubris.
Palacio still liked running, though, and started participating in triathlons while in Japan. She liked the structure of military life, too, but she wanted more decision-making power than an enlisted Marine typically had.
"I wanted to be at a point where I could help make changes or help implement different policies, and in order to do that, it was a lot easier to be heard as an officer," Palacio said.
It was then that she set her sights on Annapolis. She spent a year at the Naval Academy Preparatory School and entered Annapolis in fall 2008. She then contacted Boyle and said she would like to run for Navy. Palacio's high school track times were not necessarily Division I material, but Boyle was open to the possibilities. "I like to give people a chance," she said.
The chance worked well for both parties. "Her worth ethic is just tremendous," Boyle said. "She really has the physical and the mental aspect."
Palacio's athletic breakthrough came after she developed tendinitis during her freshman season. Through the measured pace of rehabilitation work, the woman who had charged into the subtropical weather of Okinawa without hesitation learned the importance of cross-training, peaking and tapering, and the psychological benefits of working out with a team.
Palacio is an international relations major and is considering a career in the Foreign Service. She is a natural diplomat, said Mollie Hebda, a junior middle distance runner for Navy and Palacio's friend and training partner.
"She'll sense if something's wrong and approach you in a quiet way," Hebda said. "That's why she got voted captain for cross-country next year, not really because she's fast, but more because of the way she can handle situations and the way she cares about her teammates so much. A lot of time with running, you can get carried away with your own individual event. Jess always remembers that it's a team."
Before cross-country season begins in the fall, Palacio has her summer cruise assignment, during which she will be detailed to a Marine Air-Ground Task Force.
"Basically what happens is I just hang out with a Marine unit for two weeks and get myself immersed back into the Marine Corps," she said. "It's a great opportunity to go out there and spend time with Marines."
She said she believes her experience as an enlisted Marine will make her a better officer.
"I'll have a better understanding of what they expect and want from an officer. In reality, I'm working for them," Palacio said. "A lot of times, you think of it the other way around -- that you're the officer and you're in charge of them. But in reality, it's the enlisted who can make or break you."