Illinois senior looking forward to life in slower lane

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – You'll never see Tara Mendozza doing sitspins at the UI Ice Arena or ripping through the Quad on rollerblades. But "never" ends in June.

For four years, the Illinois middle distance runner has followed assistant coach Michelle Byrne's orders and avoided hazardous leg activities.

"I know myself," Mendozza said. "I would hurt myself. I wouldn't want to be the one to say, 'Michelle, I broke my ankle ice skating.' "

Byrne isn't being mean. She just doesn't want to see a career ruined by a day on skates or skis.

"If they go snow skiing over spring break, I'll probably be having cardiac arrest," Byrne said. "There are certain things, in light of what they're doing (in track), they can't do. The risk of injury is relatively high."

Mendozza's days on the track are dwindling. When the outdoor season ends June 3, she'll put her running shoes away for a while and be a normal student.

"After this season, I think I definitely need time off, just for mental reasons to keep sane and physically with the Achilles (tendons, which are constantly sore)," Mendozza said.

"I can do a lot of things next year, fun things."

First, she's got some fun on the track to finish up. Today and Saturday, Mendozza competes in the NCAA Indoor meet on the Arkansas campus.

A year after earning All-American honors in the 800, Mendozza will compete in the mile. She has the 11th-best time in the field of 17.

"I'm definitely looking to make the final and come out of there being an All-American," Mendozza said.

The prelims will be run in two heats, with 12 advancing to the finals. Make it to the second race, Mendozza said, and anything is possible.

"The field's wide open," Mendozza said. "On any given day, anyone can win. I feel that I'm right up there with the best of them. There's not one favorite who is five seconds ahead of everyone."

No Illini has finished better than seventh in the NCAA Indoor mile. Mendozza is the first to run the event at the NCAA meet since Laura Simmering in 1992.

Having raced in last year's meet should be an advantage for Mendozza. She knows what to expect.

"I feel very good about her preparation," Byrne said. "The big dance does odd things to you when you get there. You get intimidated by the environment. I don't think that will be a concern this year."

Hopefully, Byrne said, Mendozza will be able to maintain her style in the races. Mendozza likes to get ahead of the pack early.

"We've had some problems in the past when we get mixed up in traffic," Byrne said.

Mendozza is learning how to run in a crowd.

"You've got to keep relaxed in those situations and deal with what comes," Mendozza said. "If you get boxed in, you can't freak out."

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