Runners are made, not born.
That’s the attitude Vanessa Estrada took from the moment she started her running career, and that same determination is being played out in Flagstaff, AZ., the home of Northern Arizona University.
One of the greatest athletes — boy or girl — in San Benito High history, the 5-foot-4 ½ Estrada has started her Division I running career in much the same way she did in high school — working from the bottom up.
In the fall, Estrada was one of the team’s top five runners on the cross-country squad, and she recently made the traveling squad for the track and field team.
“I know things are not going to happen all at once, but I’ve always set big goals for myself and worked hard to achieve them,” said Estrada, who is currently running the 1,600, 5,000 and 10,000-meter events for the Lumberjacks. “I don’t know what my signature event in college will be, but I know I want to be one of the team’s top runners eventually. I guess the sky’s the limit.”
Of that, there is no doubt. Estrada’s vast potential seemingly has no ceiling. As a freshman at San Benito, Estrada showed a precociousness and moxie that belied her age.
On the eve of the 2009 cross-country season, Estrada recalls a memorable conversation she had with longtime San Benito cross-country coach Jess Morales.
Estrada: “Coach, I’m going to be your No. 1 girl runner, you watch.”
Morales: “What? You’re only a freshman. You’ve never even done cross country. You’re crazy!”
Estrada: “Well, I’m going to do it coach.”
Morales: “Hey, you got a little bit of fire in you.”
A little bit of fire? How about a full-fledged inferno? Estrada has never settled for anything but to be the best, something that Morales saw from the moment the two met.
“Vanessa is a tiger. She’s got this passion and drive that you can’t teach,” Morales said. “I’ve been coaching for 35 years, and Vanessa is a different type of girl.”
Estrada admitted she didn’t get along with Morales initially, but now she considers him family. In fact, Morales and his wife, Debra, were in Flagstaff two weeks ago watching Estrada compete in a 5,000-meter race of an indoor track meet.
Estrada finished in 18 minutes, 58.55 seconds, which was good for third place. Afterward, she got dinner with the Morales’, during which she asked her former coach to evaluate her technique and performance.
“Even though I’m in college now and have good coaches, Jess will always be one of my coaches,” Estrada said. “I asked him to critique me, and what I like about him is he’s not afraid to say anything. He’s going to tell me what I need to hear, and that’s what I like about him. We talk almost everyday, and he’s my moral support. His whole family means a lot to me, and they’ll always be a part of my life.”
Morales also views Estrada as family, so much so he gets emotional when talking about the 2013 San Benito High graduate.
“It’s very exciting to see Vanessa run in college because she doesn’t take anything for granted,” Morales said. “She’s earned everything she’s got, and yet she’s still humble and a great human being. She also remembers where she came from.”
Indeed, while college has taken Estrada out of Hollister, you can’t take Hollister out of Estrada, who values her community and the people in it.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without all of the support of my coaches, teachers and teammates I’ve had over the years,” she said. “While I’m part of a new team and family here in Flagstaff, I’ll never forget the family I have in Hollister.”
Speaking of family, Estrada has deep admiration for her parents, Tony and Teresa, who both worked as managers at Taco Bell for several years before embarking on new careers as correctional officers.
Tony is currently a correctional officer at Soledad Correctional Facility, and Teresa is in the process of becoming one.
“My parents inspired me to never settle,” Estrada said. “The drive I have, they instilled in me.”
That inner drive — which is seemingly stuck in sixth gear — was evident at an early age, when Estrada always wanted to race against the boys at Ladd Lane Elementary School.
“I’ve always had that competitive mindset,” she said. “Whenever I accomplish something, I set out new goals.”
Estrada said she loves Flagstaff, which is 7,000 feet above sea level. Estrada added that she’s still adjusting to the altitude difference, but knows it will only be a matter of time before she reaps the benefits of training at high altitude.
A number of professional runners typically train at altitude months before an important race because it increases the mass of oxygen-rich red blood cells in the body while also altering muscle metabolism.
Estrada plans on improving her times, getting acclimated to the tougher collegiate competition, and improving her race tactics and technique.
As history has shown, when Estrada puts her mind to something, she usually accomplishes it.
No one knows that more than Morales, who was blown away by Estrada’s demeanor and confidence when they first met. In one of the team’s first practices in her freshman year, Estrada showed her confidence by boldly trying to keep up with then-senior Rachel Shimabukuro, who was the Balers’ top runner.
Estrada kept up, but she paid for it afterward.
“I was dead, but it was a great feeling that I could push myself beyond what I thought my capabilities were at the time,” Estrada said.
After that practice, Morales told Estrada, “Man, you’ve got guts.” To which Estrada replied, “Yeah I do, because I’m not afraid.”
Runners are made, not born.