Natalie Nalepa put in countless miles on road to Hall of Fame

The story of the most memorable race of Natalie Nalepa’s illustrious running career begins with her sipping from a steaming bowl of a homemade remedy.

It was May 1987, one week before the UIL state meet in Austin. Instead of training for the Class 5A 3,200-meter run, the Madison senior was home in bed with a cold.

“My mom basically was just feeding me homemade chicken soup,” she said.

Fortified by the tender loving care, Nalepa recovered in time to shock fans at Memorial Stadium with a last-to-first, personal-best clocking of 10:38.7.

“I wasn’t expected to win,” she said. “I don’t know if I was even expected to come in third.”

The dramatic upset served as a springboard to greatness at Baylor, where Nalepa become a five-time All-American for the Bears’ cross-country and track programs.

Nalepa, 53, will enter the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday as its first female runner and only the fourth track athlete overall, joining Darold Williamson, Clyde Glosson and Reuben Reina.

Madison’s Natalie Nalepa shook off a cold to win the 1987 Class 5A 3,200-meter run with a last-to-first, personal-best clocking of 10:38.7.

Madison’s Natalie Nalepa shook off a cold to win the 1987 Class 5A 3,200-meter run with a last-to-first, personal-best clocking of 10:38.7.

About the event

What: San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame Tribute.

When/where: 7:30 p.m. Saturday; Convention Center (Stars at Night Ballroom).

Class of 2022: Sophia Young-Malcolm, Ndukwe “N.D.” Kalu, George Pasterchick, Natalie Nalepa.

Nalepa has been immortalized before. On the strength of collecting SWC championships in five events as a senior in 1991 (the indoor mile and 3,000 meters and the outdoor 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000), she was inducted into the Baylor Athletics Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Southwest Conference Hall of Fame in 2017.

This hometown accolade ranks right up there.

“It’s such an honor when there are so many phenomenal athletes out of this city,” she said.

Nalepa wanted to go to SWC powerhouse Texas, but she signed with Baylor before the state meet after Bears assistant Que McMaster, who had coached at Sam Houston High, visited her.

“Texas sent me a letter, but they really weren’t recruiting me,” she said. “I really liked coach McMaster. He sold me on them really wanting to build their women’s program. I thought, OK, I can be a part of that.”

Besides her track success, Nalepa won consecutive SWC cross country titles in 1990 and 1991 while leading the Bears to conference crowns each year. The 1990 team became the first Baylor women’s squad in any sport to qualify for an NCAA finals.

“Baylor didn’t really have a cross country program when I started there, but we went from nothing to conference champions, and we were beating Texas,” she said.

A highly efficient runner who made up for her lack of natural speed with an unequaled work ethic, Nalepa thrived under the direction of legendary Baylor coach Clyde Hart and assistant Tom Hill.

“Natalie knew herself, knew her body and knew what she wanted to do,” Hill said. “Distance runners must be self-motivated. That was Natalie.”

Hill marveled at her effortless style and stamina.

“She could go and go and go and never stop,” he said.

Nalepa’s marvelous senior year played out under unusual circumstances. Rather than train full-time in Waco, she mainly worked out on her own in Dallas while attending the Baylor School of Nursing.

“What she did was unprecedented,” Hill said. “We would talk on the phone and fax her workouts. No one was there to time her or watch her. It was an example of her self-motivation.”

Nalepa credited Hart for allowing her to train in Dallas.

“He wasn’t excited about me leaving, but he understood and wanted to support me,” she said. “He allowed me to do it and kept me on scholarship. That motivated me even more because I didn’t want to let them down.”

Training on her own wasn’t easy. She missed her teammates, a source of support while her older brother Tom served in special operations during the Gulf War as a U.S. Air Force officer.

“I remember them praying for my brother and wearing yellow ribbons,” she said. “They are still my closest friends.”

Nalepa also enjoys a strong bond with former Madison coach Eddie Phy. He allowed her to run with a select group from the Mavericks boys team that worked out on the synthetic track at Blossom Athletic Center rather than on their school’s cinder track.

“He saw how serious I was,” Nalepa said.

Phy recalled how boys from other schools training at Blossom “couldn’t believe how hard she worked.”

“She didn’t have great foot speed,” he said. “In a straight-line race, a 100 or a 220, she probably couldn’t beat anybody. But she ran pretty much full bore. You had to be in great condition to be in the hunt with her.”

Nalepa worked so hard, Phy had to make sure she didn’t overdo it.

“You had to check on her to make sure she wasn’t out in the neighborhood running,” he said. “In addition to our workouts, she probably put in 25, 30 miles a week or more out on the road.”