Rainier High School’s Selena Niemi states she knew absolutely nothing about the world of cross country when she started the sport five years ago as a seventh grader.

Putnam Lieb Potvin Dailey LogoDespite her lack of knowledge, her natural ability took over immediately and she won the first invitational she competed in. And as impressive as her winning performance was, it’s what happened after the race that really stuck with Mountaineers Head Coach Rob Henry.

“On the bus ride home Selena very politely tried to give her ribbon to coach Karissa Beckman, who said, ‘Selena, that’s yours. You earned that.’ She graciously accepted the ribbon that she won and it was at that moment her humility stood out,” Henry recalled. “Every race she’s run since then she’s always ran for her team first and herself second.”

Niemi, now a junior, is long since removed from that middle schooler unsure what to do with her first-place hardware as she enters the new season as one of the state’s top cross country runners in the 1B/2B classification.

Rainier junior Selena Niemi (No. 122) is looking for her third consecutive top 12 placing at the state meet this year. Photo credit: Grant Clark

“I am most looking forward to getting the chance to race again and to train with my teammates,” Niemi said about the current season, which was originally scheduled to start in the fall before being pushed back to a February start due to the COVID pandemic. “I feel like I have been training for a cross country season for nearly a year. I am excited to see how everything that I have done will pay off now that I get the opportunity to compete.”

According to Henry, Niemi has improved immensely over the course of her high school career, becoming mentally stronger from her freshman to sophomore years and physically stronger between her sophomore and junior campaigns, citing her self-motivation, humbleness and drive for perfection as her three most impressive traits.

“I’ve had the pleasure of coaching her since her seventh grade year and from that moment she has been an easy and inspiring athlete to coach,” Henry said. “Selena never questions what’s asked of her, puts 110% into every workout and always has a positive attitude.”

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Niemi, who placed seventh at the state championships as a freshman and 12th last year, opened her junior season by winning her first two 5,000-meter races. Photo credit: Grant Clark

A two-time state participant, Niemi, despite being slowed by a slight case of Achilles tendinitis, has picked up right where she left off last year as she has triumphed in her first two 5,000-meter races this year, claiming first in the season-opening meet at Onalaska before duplicating the feat in the Mountaineers home opener, winning both by comfortable margins.

“My goal for this year is to be consistent and to have more confidence in myself as a runner,” Niemi said. “I feel like my biggest obstacle is my nerves most of the time during races and so I aim to work on that aspect this year.”

Should Niemi require a confidence boost all she has to do is look at her past performances. She is coming off a sophomore season where she won five out of the six regular season meets she competed in with her lone non-first place performance occurring at the Eagle Cross County Invitational at Saint Martin’s University where she placed second, finishing a shade over three seconds behind winner Clare Kondrat of Pope John Paul II High School.

She really found her stride once postseason hit last year, finishing second at the Central 2B League Championships and fourth at the 1B/2B District IV Championships where she covered the distance in a personal-best 19 minutes, 37.5 seconds before heading off to the state meet where she placed 12th overall (20:26.9).

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Niemi is looking to crack the 20-minute mark for the second time in her high school career. She covered the distance at the district championships last season in 19 minutes, 37.5 seconds. Photo credit: Grant Clark

“I am hoping to be able to run sub-20 minute 5ks more consistently this year,” said Niemi, who placed seventh at state as a freshman and helped Rainier’s 4×400 relay team finish third at the state track meet in 2019. “Ideally, I would like to run low 19s but that might be a goal more for next year.”

However, it’s not just been about running for Niemi this season as the Mountaineers graduated a strong senior class that feature four state participants, requiring Niemi to also take on a larger leadership role this year, something her coach believes she has excelled at as well.

“Definitely more has been asked out of her this year and she’s accepted without question,” said Henry about Niemi. “She’s been asked to be a role model for the younger athletes. This includes our middle schoolers. We also want her to take on the role of confidant and motivator for the other athletes. Selena is just a pleasure to coach and inspiration to not only her teammates, but her classmates as well.” She excels in the classroom as well, keeping up a 4.0 grade average.

Rainier will head to Onalaska for the Central 2B Championships on March 11 before hosting the 2B District IV Championships on March 20 with top performers there advancing to the state meet.

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