The Last Dance Begins for Katelyn Tuohy and the NC State Women
#1 NC State heads to Madison on Friday for the Nuttycombe Invitational, where Tuohy could make her 2023 XC season debutBy Jonathan Gault
If they were making a documentary about the 2023 North Carolina State women’s cross country team, they might call it The Last Dance.
What’s that? The name’s already taken?
Okay, we may need to go with something else. But at the risk of offending Michael Jordan fans by comparing the most famous North Carolina Tar Heel of them all to a group of Wolfpack distance runners, there are a few clear similarities between what will unfold in Raleigh this fall and what we saw with the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. Like the Bulls, NC State is chasing a third consecutive championship. And like the Bulls, NC State is led by a formidable trio — in NC State’s case, Katelyn Tuohy, Kelsey Chmiel, and Sam Bush, all of whom were scoring members of the Wolfpack’s NCAA title teams in 2021 and 2022.
Tuohy, the reigning individual champion, is Jordan, the biggest star and unquestioned #1 option. MJ may have been just a tad more famous, but given the context of their sports, the comparison kind of works: Tuohy is about as popular as a women’s college cross country runner can be.
Chmiel is Scottie Pippen: the #2 that would be the #1 on almost any other team. And Bush…nope, there’s no way I can compare Bush to Dennis Rodman. Look, nobody said this analogy was perfect.
It’s also unlikely NC State implodes next year like the 1998-99 Bulls; coach Laurie Henes has no plans to retire, and the team has reinforcements waiting in the wings in the form of freshmen Leah Stephens and Grace Hartman, both of whom finished in the top 10 to lead the team to victory at the Joe Piane Invitational at Notre Dame on September 29.
But we know this will be the final cross country season for fifth-years Chmiel and Bush and it will almost certainly be the last one for Tuohy, who has another year of eligibility but is expected to turn professional sometime before next fall. Tuohy, who will graduate with a degree in business in December, was going to be on campus this fall anyway. And while she has the opportunity to make history this season — only two other schools have won three straight titles, and only five other women have won repeat individual titles — what appealed to her most was the chance to spend one last season with her teammates. At the professional level, there is nothing quite like the close-knit experience of being on a collegiate cross country team.
“Her exact words at one point were she just wasn’t ready to leave the girls yet, teamwise,” Henes said.
Chmiel, who will be trying to become a five-time All-American in cross this November — the NCAA decided that COVID-delayed 2020 championships did not count against anyone’s eligibility — had other options this fall. An academic star, Chmiel graduated in two and a half years with a degree in animal science and earned the NCAA’s Elite 90 award for having the highest GPA of any athlete at the 2022 NCAA Indoor Championships. She was accepted into NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine — one of the best such schools in the country — but deferred admission and will complete a separate master’s program this fall rather than balance running and vet school.
For her part, Henes considers herself fortunate to be able to coach the women who delivered NC State’s first two NCAA titles for one more season.
“That group has always been pretty close,” Henes said. “I think them getting to run together one more time is something they were all pretty excited about.”
For Tuohy, a different approach in 2023-24
Tuohy tore up the collegiate records books in 2023. After winning the NCAA cross country title last fall, Tuohy set NCAA records in the mile (4:24.26), 3,000 (8:35.20), and outdoor 5,000 (15:03.12) and won the 3,000 and 5,000 at the NCAA indoor championships in Albuquerque. Tuohy tried an ambitions double at the NCAA outdoor championships in Austin in June, aiming to become the first woman to win NCAA 1500 and 5,000 titles on the same day. But her collegiate season ended in disappointment as she faded from 1st to 7th over the final 120 meters of the 1500 final and wound up scratching from the 5,000. She looked better a month later at the US championships, where she finished 7th in 15:15 (though she was still 20 seconds away from making the World Championship team).
Henes said that a combination of factors led to Tuohy being off her game in Austin. Tuohy had been racing a lot while also raising her mileage into the 70s per week for the first time last spring. At the same time, Tuohy, who signed an NIL contract with adidas last fall, was being courted by shoe companies and had to deal with the stress of a major life decision: whether to turn fully professional or not, and if so, whom to sign with. By June, she was worn down.
“We tried to limit [her racing], but it’s just kind of hard in the indoor season to limit it, and she really wanted to double indoors,” Henes said. “And I think at some point, she was a little tired in some of the workouts, which we hadn’t really seen [before], like in April and May.”
This year will be different. At this point in Tuohy’s career, Henes said, her focus has grown beyond the NCAA, with the Olympic Trials in June 2024 the long-term priority. Whoever Tuohy represents during the 2024 track season, whether it’s NC State or a professional brand, Henes said the plan is to be selective with Tuohy’s races so that she can build her volume smartly and peak in the summer.
“I know people have done it very well with the full NCAA season, but I think it can be really difficult for someone who runs cross country at that level and indoors and outdoors to still feel great going into a US nationals or an Olympic Trials,” Henes said. “So we’ll want to limit that so that she can feel good in June and July and maybe even August…She’s really adjusted every time we’ve raised [volume] very well, but sometimes it takes a little bit of time. And I think it’s tough in collegiate seasons where there’s three ACCs, three nationals, all those things. I think that will be something much easier for her to handle outside of a collegiate season. She loves training hard, she would do it all the time.”
In part because her track season ran into July and in part to keep her fresh for next year, Henes said Tuohy will race sparingly this fall. Tuohy will open up either on Friday at the Wisconsin Nuttycombe Invitational, where #1 NC State are the defending champions, or at the ACC Championships in Tallahassee on October 27. And when she does race, the hope is that Tuohy will be able to do so with less stress than last spring; Tuohy is holding off any decisions about her future until after the NCAA championships on November 18. She wants to be able to enjoy what could be her final season in the red and white of NC State.
“I think she’s in a good place right now where she’s just focused on the season for the rest of this fall,” Henes said.