Simon, how much better can you get as an athlete considering what you accomplished a year ago?
Simon Bairu: "Well, I feel like you can always get better. There's always room for improvement. And right now there's still a few things that I have to work on to make sure that I'll be prepared for nationals. And that's where the Big Ten meet is going to come in for me. I'm going to use that as a stepping stone to help me get better for the national meet."
Simon, how is your health, your fitness, the way you're running right now compared to where you were a year ago at this time? And what have you learned going through that whole experience last year, all the way through nationals, that you think helps you the most this season?
SB: "Well, to begin with, my health is perfectly fine. I'm healthy. And training-wise, I've been putting in more miles than I ever have. I've been doing about 100 to 110 miles a week so far. And the one thing I learned from last year is just not to be complacent and always to be hungry, and I think that's going to help me and the team in our approach going into nationals. And hopefully I'll help us win a team title."
Jerry, what can Simon work on to get better?
JS: "I think he, the little things are the most important things. And that goes for any individual in our sport. We do a lot of things together as a team that work on general conditioning and training.
"But it's all the little things that go into each athlete that they know, that we've identified through time and you only get better at coaching somebody year after year after year as you get to know them better and better and the little things that help kind of make them tick. And there's a lot of little things that we've figured out over the years that really help Simon, and he does those little things and he works hard at them every year and hopefully that makes him better every year."
Jerry, can you give us an example of one of those little things? I mean . . . just one thing that might . . .
JS: "Sure. For instance, something we've definitely learned with Simon is, a workout that we would do would be something, interval work, which is the repeats. It does the same four times a mile, five times or whatever it might be. The distance doesn't matter. But the interval sessions and Simon seems to really benefit by doing those kind of over . . . trails, when we use the Arboretum, we have a loop out there that we train on.
"And he definitely benefits by doing that, versus some guys really, they, it's more advantageous for them, advantageous for them to use the track when we do that type of training. And that's just one of the little things that's been part of Simon's makeup, that we try to put him out there as many times as we can for that type of a workout session."
Not to put you on the spot, Simon. What means more to you, an individual championship or a team championship?
SB: "Well, to be honest with you, I feel like I already accomplished that goal of being an individual champion, something that no one can ever take away from me. And for me the challenge is to help this team, lead the team into winning (the NCAA) team title. It's been, I think, almost, what, 20 years, almost 20 years since our last team title. So that's really the challenge for me and for the guys on the team this year, is just to try to bring that back to the program."
Is your approach with the team this year any different at this time trying to get to that ultimate goal of a national championship than what it was a year ago when maybe so many people expected that was a real possibility for your team?
JS: "I don't know if the approach is any different. We're doing some things differently this season, but I don't think the approach is really any different. You know, our goal it to try to put ourselves in the best position possible to be the best team we can be on that particular day.
"And, you know, a lot of people have asked me if, you know, if Simon can win the national championship individually again, and I tell them honestly, I say, you know, Simon last year, there were probably 15 people heading into that last week of the season that really thought they were an individual contender for the national title. And by the time the gun went off that day, there were probably seven people that had a legitimate chance to win.
"And then when it really came down to it, only one person really was going to win it that day, and it was Simon. And what goes into that is all the work you do all season and the preparation and training, all the little things that we talk about. And it takes a little bit of luck and things have got to go your way that day. And I think the same thing would be for this team, as it would have been for last year's team.
"We're working really hard and we're doing all the things right and trying to put ourselves in the best position to win. And then when we get there that day, there's going to be a few other teams that are in that same position, and whoever has that best day that day is probably going to be the champion. And we're really preparing ourselves to be able to execute it to our best on that day so that we give ourselves the best opportunity we can to win."
Jerry, assuming the target is probably on your back for the Big Ten meet again, but will it be any more difficult this year than it's been last year?
JS: "Did you say at Big Ten? You know what? I think, yeah, the Big Ten is always strong. It's probably one of the stronger, if not the strongest, cross country conference in the country. There's probably five ranked, you know, top 25 or top 30 teams in the country in the Big Ten right now. There might even be six. So it's never an easy meet, and especially when you pull, you're at your league meet and your conference meet, it's small. There's only ten teams there.
"So you really can't have too many mistakes and still expect to do your best. So this year, like any other year, we're prepared to go in there and we want to run our best and be a good team and, you know, we'd be disappointed without winning. So it's definitely, it's the first step of the championship part of the season for us and we don't take it lightly because of that."