Middle-distance runner Lea Wallace, an American record-holder in the 4x800 relay, was one of Sacramento State's most celebrated student-athletes. And her legacy of speed lives on.
As a Hornet, she was a four-time All-American and six-time Big Sky Conference champion. Her school records include the indoor 800 meters (2:03:07), indoor mile (4:48:19) and outdoor 1,500 meters (4:11:31). And she holds the Big Sky record in the 800 (2:02.95), set April 7, 2011, at Hornet Stadium when Sac State hosted the Mondo Mid-Major Challenge.
As "the greatest 800-meter runner in Big Sky history," she is ranked No. 11 on the conference's 2014 list of "25 Greatest Female Athletes."
These days, Wallace is a Nike-sponsored professional runner who trains at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista and competes all over the world.
"It's amazing. I get to do something I love every single day, and it's my job," she said in June before competing in the 2014 USA Track & Field Championships at Hornet Stadium. Wallace had a disappointing showing at the USATF meet, advancing in neither the 800 nor the 1,500. Soon she was off to compete in Europe.
Her goal is to make the American team and compete in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. That dream is all the more urgent because of what happened in 2012.
A week before the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., she suffered a retinal hemorrhage during a workout that left her with only partial vision in her right eye. Her father was quite ill at the time, and she thought she should stay by his side, but her parents insisted that she go to Eugene. Her dad watched on TV as she ran in the 800-meter preliminary round and advanced to the next day's semifinal. He died a few hours later.
The heartbroken Wallace ran what was, for her, a slow pace in the semis and didn't advance in the competition. Her dream of running at the London Olympics was over.
"The Olympics is why I'm in it right now," says Wallace, who recently was featured in a Yahoo profile.
She grew up in Napa and was a ballet dancer until her sophomore year in high school, when she discovered running. She competed against the boys at Vintage High School, and her goal was to beat at least three at every race. She enrolled at Cal Poly after graduation but transferred to Sac State two years later.
She joined the Hornet track team in 2009 and was the Big Sky champion in the outdoor 800 that year.
"Coming out of high school, I didn't look at Sac State as an option for me to be competing in college. I came here on a visit and loved it. I thought, 'I can really make it happen here.' Sac State was a much better opportunity for me.
"I learned the importance of dedication day in and day out. My coach did a really good job of making the process the focus instead of the goal. For track athletes, you need to run fast on race day, but in order to do that, it's all about the day-to-day grind. And I learned how to train here at Sac State."
Her most spectacular win as a professional came at the 2013 Penn Relays. She ran the lead leg for the 4x800-meter relay team that shattered the previous U.S. record, which had stood for 30 years. She and teammates Brenda Martinez, Ajee Wilson and Alysia Montano finished in a blazing 8:04.31. The previous record was 8:17.09.
Wallace has collected trophies and accolades throughout her running career, including being named in 2011 as the NCAA West region's co-athlete of the year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. And, in her final year at Sac State, she and track teammate Ronald Brookins received the Big Sky Conference's prestigious scholar-athlete awards.
"I love track and field, and I always want to be a part of the sport," she says. "My degree is in nutrition, and I would love to pursue that with athletes or in the community. I'll always be tied to track and field and health and well-being. - Dixie Reid