If there was ever someone who was born to run, it’s Mia Nahom. But for her, running cross country was not always on her bingo card. In fact, her first experiences as an athlete came through being a soccer player, and it was her seeming inability to get fatigued that was the precursor to her ditching cleats for spikes. A natural ability inherited from both parents, the Milford, Conn. native has gone on to become one of the UConn cross country program’s most prolific and decorated athletes. But while her prowess competing for UConn over the years came as no surprise to most, including program director Greg Roy, the writing was on the wall long before she realized, since both of her parents were four-year letter-winners on Colorado University’s cross country teams.
“In her freshman year I watched her compete, and she was one of the best competitors I had ever seen; very talented and tough as nails,” Roy said. “She’s clearly one of the top competitors to be part of the program and she has the talent to go with it.”
Throughout her career, Nahom has managed to be the program’s front-runner, securing multiple conference and region honors, with her peak performance coming after earning an individual qualification to the NCAA Championship in 2019.
“Being an individual qualifier for nationals in 2019 was really special, and as a team, last year’s runner-up finish was pretty meaningful as well, although very tough, because everyone stepped up in different ways and ran really well,” Nahom said.
Following a recently concluded season that saw an anticlimactic ending, Nahom reflected on the things that felt missing from her illustrious career.
“When we won the conference championship in 2017/18, that remains one of my [favorite] collegiate moments. Every year we work really hard with that goal in mind, but sometimes we fall short, and in a program like this, there are highs and lows; but repeating that season would have been the icing on the cake,” she said.
A food science enthusiast and natural leader, Nahom often found herself in positions of leadership, not just on the cross country turf, but also within the program. But, this default positioning came through a hard transition when both the men’s and women’s programs merged, and her then-seniors had fulfilled their years of eligibility.
“I think in my freshman and sophomore years, I had great people leading above me and my junior year, the programs merged, people graduated and there was a lot missing; so my class and the class above me started filling those roles, since it seemed the team was missing that,” she said.
Over time, her leadership manifested in every aspect of her relationship with the program and fellow teammates, even in training. For Coach Roy, a visual imprint of Nahom’s performance at the conference-winning championships in her freshman year is evoked regularly whenever he watches her.
“I believe leaders are born just as much as they’re made, and a visual manifestation of Mia’s leadership came to me not so long ago. I was around campus and a bunch of the women from the program were going out for a run, and Mia was right there at the front,” Roy said.
Spending more time being present is one way Nahom has been dealing with the reality of her eventual departure from UConn. As she prepares for her final indoor season, the economics and evolutionary biology major blocks out the occasional reminders that her time at UConn is coming to an end.
“It dawns on me like at least once a week, where I’m like I’m going to miss this, even the little things— some of which I complain about now too, but I try to enjoy every moment and not to think too far ahead,” she said.
For others, Nahom’s swan song year has been marked by wishes for a longer period as her teammates. “I regret having only one year with her,” teammate Chloe Thomas said. “Mia is an incredible athlete and friend, and it is such a privilege to train alongside her. She’s the speediest and most humble person I know, who contributes so much positivity and motivation to our team dynamic,” she said.
As for Coach Roy, Nahom’s departure is a reminder of how his program facilitates the emergence of leaders.
“Anytime you lose an athlete of that caliber you don’t replace them; you don’t get another person like that necessarily,” he said. “The program evolves and someone else steps to the forefront; how they lead the team and how good they are may or may not compare to what Mia was and did, but our program is big on developing athletes at that level,” he said.
Life after UConn for Nahom is a far cry from what most would like to imagine, the outgoing captain is about to complete a combined Bachelor of Science and Master of Science, with the latter being biodiversity and conservation biology. An advocate for climate change, Nahom hopes her studies will land her a career in bioinformatics and microbiology.
“It’s hard to think about not being in the running world whenever I look at jobs I’m excited about,” she said. “I don’t see myself coaching because I’ve seen just how hard of a job it is, but I’ve always liked ecology and plant science in high school and when I got to UConn, I got more interested in food systems and food wasting since they’re a big part of climate change. So [I hope to end up] somewhere in the biotech or agro-ecology realm,” she said.
With multiple school records under her belt, Nahom is confident in a smooth succession by some of her current and returning teammates, who have been led by her example.
“With Coach Lindsay’s program, we always see people improve and step to the forefront, so I’m not too worried about that; if anything we’re going to be better in the coming seasons,” she said.