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Interval Session #40 - Jillian Smith
March 5, 2008

Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin NJ has had quite a run at the top of the girls distance running world. Two years ago, at this point, then-junior Danielle Tauro had already won Millrose, but was in the hospital, fighting off an illness. She would recover to lead her DMR squad to an improbable come-from-behind win at NIN and go on to win Penn, NON, and USATF Juniors. But the sharp-eyed and serious Jersey fans were noticing that one of those DMR team members was developing a pretty good resume of her own. By the end of the spring, freshman Jillian Smith had lowered her 1600 and 800 times down to 4:51 and 2:12 and fans were thrilled at what she might do the next three years.

Early the following fall, however, neither Danielle or Jillian could be found on the XC course. The former was taking some recovery time after World Juniors while Smith was doing what she had been doing each fall – playing soccer. As Danielle went on to have an up-and-down senior year, Jillian made gradual progress, finishing close behind her teammate at Boston and Millrose indoors, then lowering her PRs to 4:46 and 2:08 outdoors.

By last fall, Danielle had moved on to University of Michigan, while Jillian embarked on her first fall as a harrier. She was unbeaten until the NJ Meet of Champs and just missed a spot for Foot Locker Finals. During the winter, the junior has really come into her own, winning those Boston and Millrose races and establishing herself as the mile favorite next week at Nike Indoor.

While the influence of her former teammate is unmistakable, Jillian has begun to clearly establish her own championship style and her confidence grows with every victory. DyeStat News Editor SteveU caught up with her as she continued to prepare for NIN..

Jillian focuses on the final laps of her Millrose win.  Photo John Nepolitan

1. Jillian, you've had a fantastic 2008 so far.  When you look at your perspective back before indoor started, what were your goals for yourself and your team and how do you feel you've done in achieving them?  What unfinished business remains for you and your teammates?

Coming into indoor for the New Year, I was very anxious as to what I would be able to accomplish for this year, because as my coach kept telling me, your junior year's the "big" one.  And surprisingly, for me, it was "big."  I was pretty nervous about how well I was going to make the transition to my junior year, running-wise, as Danielle Tauro sadly was no longer my workout companion, nor competitor.  Having someone who was such a huge part of my team and life suddenly being gone was a great obstacle … but I’ve been surprised that I’ve been able to adjust to it pretty well.

My goals for this year, I would have to say, were just to go out and accomplish some things more on an individual basis, rather than the usual team basis, including hopefully running well in both the Boston and Millrose Games.  I just wanted to run as fast as my legs will let me.  As for unfinished business, you never know what each race will bring, so there is always going to be some unfinished business/goals that my team will undoubtedly strive for.

2. Looking back at cross-country, it seems like you had a good fall, even with a few tough losses and just missing Foot Locker.  How do you assess the cross-country season and what were the most important things you learned?

I have to say that cross-country may in fact be one of the most enduring sports, both on a emotional and physical level, which was something that I hadn't fully grasped when I made the choice to switch from soccer to X-C.  However, I have to say that without it, I don’t think that I would have been able to accomplish even half of what I've been able to accomplish.  I also learned how important each and every single individual on a team is; when you’re on the line, you’re running together, not against each other. 

Along with that, I picked up on the fact that X-C is one of the few sports that you are happy when other teams score more points than yours.  I've also learned that my team probably drinks more water in a single day from X-C than most people do in a year.

3. You ran in some of the biggest track meets indoors - Millrose, Boston, etc. - as a sophomore, yet when you returned this year it was a different situation and you were the favorite.  How much harder was it to be in those situations this time around and what did you and your coach do to prepare for them?

Coming into those high-pressure meets again this year equated to exactly that – high amounts of pressure.  This time around, I found it a lot harder steping on the starting line without my bud, D.T., because of the fact that I felt like I had to do well because everyone else expected me to – not just because I wanted to do well.

But, thankfully, talking to both Danielle and my coach brought me back down.  They told me that I didn't owe anything to anybody and I should just try as hard as I could for myself.  I also learned that whether you walk off of the track, as a 20th-place finisher or the 1st-place finisher, you will always get the chance to say that you ran at Millrose.  That was something that I wouldn't be quick to forget this time around.  I also learned that being a veteran of that track definitely made a huge difference this year.

4. A lot has been made of your being Danielle Tauro's successor, and probably rightfully so; there have been few runners at your level who have had a mentor of her level before them.  What was there in the relationship between Danielle and you and the team that not too many people know about?  Was she like a big sister to you?  What have to done to adjust and what has been the biggest challenge for you this year in assuming a leadership role as a junior?

Danielle Tauro is and will always be an outstanding mentor, leader, runner, competitor, and not least importantly, a companion to me.  The hardest part by far this year was losing her, as both a competitor and, moreover, a friend.  One of the most important things that she taught me is to work hard, as it will always pay off.  I would have to say that she is the most determined individual that I know, and I owe a lot of my success to her.  Doing something you love with one of your best friends...what could be better?

Jillian (right) with the rest of her NON-winning Hammer TC DMR team last June (from left): Danielle Tauro, Chelsea Cox, and Jessica Bergin.  Photo Donna Dye
5. Even with all the individual success you and Danielle have had, it's clear that there's a very strong team concept taught at Southern Regional.  Can you talk about the coaching style of Coach Brian Zatorski and how it has benefited you and your teammates?

One of the most important things that I've learned from my coach and team is that it’s good to suffer a little for others.  If running a couple of events puts your team in a better spot than just running one, there should be no juggling of decisions as to what to do.  An individual is only part of something greater, a team.  And my team is definitely my better half.

6. Much has been made about your love for soccer and giving it up to run cross-country.  Can you talk about your passion for "the other sport," and what were the most difficult things about giving it up this past fall?  Are you still finding a way to stay in the sport a little or do you hope to do so in the future?

The one reason that I gave up soccer this year, was in fact to better my career as a runner.  By making the transition, I definitely feel that I have accomplished that thus far.  Without X-C, I don't know that I would have been able to do half of what I've been able to accomplish this year.  The most difficult thing was just merely not playing the game of soccer with the team, because as I'm sure you know, X-C and soccer are two totally polar opposite sports altogether.  Even though I miss it sometimes, I get to kick the ball around sometimes with my younger brother.  Looking back now, I have absolutely no regrets in switching to a full time running schedule.  In order to make your future a little brighter, you have to sacrifice some things along the way, which makes you stronger.  And, in the case of X-C, both mentally and physically.

7. So, we've heard about this nickname, "Jilly Willy Wonka."  Either you must be a fan of one of the great kids' books and movie of all time, or maybe you're a little goofy (or both).  How did you get that nickname?  What would your friends and teammates say about this, and what would they say you're like as a teammate and friend?

Ever since I was little, my parents always called me Jilly or Will, and I guess the name just stuck as Jilly Willy Wonka.  When I was about four or five, my family and I traveled to New Hampshire to visit my cousins.  When my aunt told my cousin Callan that Jillian was coming he looked at her perplexed and asked who that was due to the fact that he thought my actual name was Jilly Willy Wonka.  I guess it's just one of those family names that stick with you for a while.  I guess with a name like that you have to be a little on the light-hearted side.  One thing that I think both my teammates and I agree on is that I just like to laugh and have fun.

8. I've read you have some pretty diverse interests in terms of academics and such.  You’ve been quoted as saying you like marine biology on the one hand, and mentioned Harriet Tubman as a historical figure you'd like to meet on the other.  Can you talk about how you've developed these interests and the influence your family has had on who you are as a student.  Have they also given you a lot of support as a runner?

My family has given me a monumental amount of support as both an athlete and a student.  The one thing that my parents always say is, "Do what makes you happy.  Whatever that is, we will be behind you 100%."  With that kind of support at home, I almost take advantage of it sometimes.  I know a lot of kids that can't experience and participate in the things that they love because of lack of family support.  I owe a lot to my family, as they spend hours of their weekends coming to track meets.  Even my ten-year-old brother would rather come to a track meet on a Saturday morning than hang out with friends.  In my eyes, he's my biggest fan, and I'm more than thankful for having that.

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