High School Athletes Ready For IAAF U20 XC Champ Experience

"Even though it's longer than I've been racing, I think I'm pretty fit." -- Carter Cheeseman

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By Cory Mull - MileSplit Lead Writer

There is an air of mystery surrounding Carter Cheeseman's first international race for Team USA. The same goes for Grace Ping, and ideally, for Heidi Nielson, too. 

It's hard to know what to expect when you're landing on foreign soil, when you're competing for the first time in your country's jersey. All three high school athletes are entered to race at the IAAF U20 Cross Country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, on March 30. 

The course, a lapped 2-kilometer loop that starts with a formidable incline, features a mud pit, sand pit, water splash and something called a 'Viking Gauntlet." There are long descending stretches, and micro-hills throughout.

The junior boys athletes will run a distance of 8-kilometers, while the girls will focus on 6- kilometers. Cheeseman referred to as a "true cross country course," and it's likely something he's never seen before. 

But each athlete was firm in their hopes of a positive experience -- Editor's note: we were not able to reach Nielson for comment before she flew to Denmark. 

After five days in Aarhus, Denmark, taking in the sights and sounds of Europe, of racing against an international contingent and watching professionals tackle this course, of taking notes from collegiate coaches and noted officials at the IAAF U20 Cross Country Championships, each believed the opportunity would have its effect on them. 

"I'm very excited and interested to experience international racing," Cheeseman said Monday before flying off to Denmark. "I'm planning on kind of watching the pros, seeing how they handle it. I want to get a feel for how that works. That will be cool. As far as the race goes, I've been feeling pretty good. Hopefully I can adjust the body clock and get ready to race. 

"I don't even know how I stack up in the field at all," Ping said from the Detroit airport. "So I don't know what to expect with that. But I just want to do my best and see where that can take me." 

Saturday is the day for the USA U20 teams to make their way to the competition circle. The women's junior race will take place at 11:35 a.m. in local (Denmark) time, while the men's juniors will follow at 12:10 p.m.

The men's roster will feature national champion Shuaib Aljabaly, Gabriel Mudel, Miekael Beaudoin-Rousseau, Charlie Perry, Khalid Hussein and Fort Worth Christian's Carter Cheeseman

The women are rounded by national champion Nicole Clermont, Kayla Smith, Riley Rigdon, Winona Cotter's Grace Ping, Savannah Shaw and Katy Cinco Ranch's Heidi Nielson

Unlike Cheeseman and Nielson, who have been competing and experiencing success early on in the outdoor track and field season -- Cheeseman also won a national title in the 5K to finish his indoor career -- Ping has been on treadmills indoors in Minnesota. 

It's been harder for the high school sophomore, the youngest of any USA athlete at the U20 Championships, to get into a rhythm heading into worlds. 

But that hasn't stopped her. 

"I just want to do my best and see where that can take me." -- Grace Ping

"My training has been really good," she said. "A lot of it was on the treadmill because it's been cold. I've been able to run outside. Track started two weeks ago for me and I haven't had any races, but I feel really ready to race." 

And Ping in some ways seems destined for these kinds of distances, too. It wasn't so long ago when, as an 11-, 12-, and 13-year-old she was scooping up age group world records at 2-miles and 5K. At 12, she ran 16:44.80 for 5,000 meters, and then following with a time of 16:25.63 the very next year. 

While high school has had its fair share of challenges, Ping had her best year overall as a sophomore and qualified for both Nike Cross Nationals and Foot Locker Nationals. Still, while gaining perspective in the airport waiting to catch a flight, she was hopeful this experience would slingshot her even farther ahead. 

"Tallahassee was a good experience and it was special coming off not so great performance at NXN and Foot Locker," she said. "I wanted a good race there and it went well because I could follow the college girls who had experience.

"I'll try to follow that here, too." 

Cheeseman and Nielson, meanwhile, are in fine form this outdoor season already. 

Cheeseman hit 9:10.97 on the clock for 3200 meters at the Jesuit-Sheaner Relays in Dallas this past weekend, while Nielson ramped up the speed and clocked 4:33.08 at the Victor Lopez Classic in Houston, then added a US No. 1 time of 9:46.71 in the 3K. It seems both are ready to step right into the race. 

"It will be an adjustment for sure," said Cheeseman, who's a Notre Dame signee. "I think it was good to get the base miles under me. I haven't really done any cross country workouts since I qualified, but I haven't forgotten how that felt. It's a little easier to adjust when you go up in distance." 

Like Ping, it seems like there's a future for Cheeseman up in distance, too. 

He won the New Balance Nationals Indoor 5K title in 14:40.01 on March 10, then dropped time outdoors to go 14:36.60 at the Texas Distance Festival the following weekend, earning another big win -- his second at the festival in ensuing years. 

At the end of each race, there was a smoothness to Cheeseman's finish, like he was embracing the final meters. 

"I'm certainly confident in what I'm doing," Cheeseman said. "It's working well, the training. Hopefully it rubs off. You never know until you run it, but I wouldn't say I'm nervous going in. Even though it's longer than I've been racing, I think I'm pretty fit." 

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Contact Cory Mull at cory.mull@flosports.tv, or on Twitter @bycorymull