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Jess Palacio sets new standard at Navy

Jess Palacio is the best female distance runner in Navy's history, setting six indoor and outdoor records. Courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy

Jess Palacio insists she never thinks about setting records or making history when she runs. It's something she loves to do and it comes naturally, a welcome, head-clearing escape from the rigors of being a senior at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

But running is more than an extracurricular activity for Palacio. She has become the best female distance runner in the academy's history and will be the first female Midshipman to compete in the NCAA Division I indoor track and field championships Friday in Nampa, Idaho.

Palacio received an at-large invite for the mile, thanks to her school-record indoor time of 4:38.43, which she ran at the Navy Classic on Jan. 28. She's been battling a right hamstring injury the past two weeks, changing her workouts, but still plans to run on Friday.

"I'm excited and nervous, it's a real honor to represent the academy," said Palacio, a native of Sun Valley, Nev. "I feel like I am fit and ready for this. I just want to go out, run, do my best."

There are 16 runners in the field, with the top eight achieving first-team All-America status. The top time in the field is 4:31.92. Seeded 14th, Palacio's goal is a top-eight finish, which would be another first for Navy.

"She's a beautiful runner to watch, and an even more impressive leader and person," Navy distance coach Karen Boyle said. "Jess is setting a standard that is going to be a legacy for her teammates and those who come in the future."

Boyle also has worked with Palacio during cross country season, helping her reach the 2011 NCAA championship. She won the Patriot League cross country title and finished 164th out of 254 runners in the NCAA final. Palacio has rewritten Navy's track records, setting six indoor and outdoor marks.

She set her career-best mile time, 4:22.58, last year during the outdoor season.

Palacio has taken an unusual path to the Naval Academy and her success on the track. She enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from high school and served 2½ years in places such as Okinawa, Japan, before deciding to apply to the academy. She considered applying out of high school but didn't feel ready for the academic challenges.

But she didn't let go of the goal of someday making it to Annapolis. And she didn't stop running, a love since high school, as she continued jaunts for fun even in humid and hot conditions in Japan.

It's rare for enlisted personnel to go to Annapolis, which is designed to train future Navy and Marine officers. The Naval Academy had 4,400 students enrolled in 2011, with 183 being formerly enlisted personnel, according to the New York Times. Only 22 women matched Palacio's background.

She transitioned from being a corporal to a plebe, the Naval Academy's term for a freshman, and tried to find her way. Palacio was two years older than most of her classmates and had maturity and real-world experience from being in active duty service. She became the first enlisted athlete Boyle had coached in nearly a quarter-century at Navy.

"It was hard to adjust at first, because you wonder if you will be strong enough to make it," Palacio said. "The military aspects came naturally, because I was used to that, but I wasn't the strongest academically at the start. I definitely found that challenging. I got into a routine and started to really find out who I was. And yes, there were assumptions about me because I was enlisted, but those went away once people got to know me."

The academy is an unusually rigorous place as it combines rigid academic standards with the leadership and physical demands of preparing for military service. Palacio's days are long, starting at 7 a.m. and lasting sometimes until 3 a.m. She mixes classes with her track practices, squeezing in studying and cross-training along the way. She jokes that she's an "old lady" at age 25 but admits being a few years older and wiser helps her keep her priorities in order in her final months of class.

Palacio is also juggling wedding planning as she is scheduled to marry a fellow Marine after graduation in late May. She's known for her time-management skills, impressing teammates by recently getting out her invitations and finalizing wedding details during the stressful midterm period.

Palacio will be commissioned as a Marine second lieutenant in May, heading back into active service and leadership training.

"I think I can bring a perspective that hopefully will be helpful, since I have been enlisted and understand what they go through," said Palacio, who is majoring in political science with a focus on international relations. "It's always an asset to have as many perspectives as possible, and I'm looking forward to being back in the corps."

Palacio enjoys the camaraderie of her fellow Navy runners, who say they look to her because of her talent and leadership. Boyle and junior distance runner Brigid Byrne tell stories of Palacio leading races, in cross country and track, but dropping back to encourage teammates. She'll set a better pace, give some words of support and then pick up her run by regaining the lead.

"She could blow competition away, but she hung back to pull me up with her," Byrne said. "We had 1-2 finishes, due to her leading me along. She sacrificed a minute in cross country, pulling back to help me out. I can really feel she helps drop time, and she's never condescending about it. She's doing what's best for the team, for me. She's doing a kindness of heart, and you feel that truly."

Byrne, the other Navy runners and Boyle see a future for Palacio's running beyond the academy. Their dream is to see her compete at the U.S. track and field trials in June for a shot at the 2012 London Olympics. She has to pare her time down to 4:17, the "B" standard, to qualify for the trials.

"I want her to get selfish now, we all want her to run to her full ability and take this as far as it can go and not worry about us," Byrne said. "I am going to tell her that now and in the outdoor season. She's unbelievably gifted, and we want her to really go for it."

Boyle added, "She's got a very natural gift as a runner, and I think if this is something she really wants, especially in an Olympic year, it's very possible she can do it. If she wants to concentrate on other things in her life, we'll totally support her too. She's going to be a success no matter what she does."

Palacio laughs when she hears of Byrne's and Boyle's remarks and acknowledges their truth. She would like to challenge herself to become a world-class runner and knows it will take a lot more work. Her service as a Marine, along with married life, also will need to be factored.

"I'm taking this all as it comes," Palacio said. "I'd like to see where I can take my running, but I will do what the corps needs after I am done here. We'll see what happens."