Years before she became the Missouri Tigers’ most-decorated athlete, Karissa Schweizer liked to run here along Douglas Parkway, where the lots are big, the homes look alike and the traffic is minimal.
Her grandfather, Frank Schweizer, would trail her in his sedan as she ran along this four-lane road that helped set her toward becoming one of the nation’s best collegiate runners. Few cars occupy it, and it was even emptier when Schweizer was a high schooler, before more housing developments sprouted up in this Des Moines suburb.
The runs were only about five miles each, which isn’t much for a Division I prospect, but Karissa remembers thinking those sessions made up a “long, long day.” Frank — who spent more than four decades as the track coach at Karissa’s high school, Dowling Catholic — believed in keeping the workload light for the teenager. He sought to prevent burn out. And he wanted to save time for himself.
“It was occasionally an inconvenience for me,” he said as he drove down Douglas Parkway last week. “I quit coaching so I could play golf.”
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But he kept following her as she ran, kept answering her calls the night before each competition to discuss race strategy, a tradition that continues today. And inside one of Schweizer’s now-many Southeastern Conference championship rings, there’s an inscription dedicating the jewelry to Grandpa Frank, whom she calls her first coach. He said seeing the ring was an “emotional moment” for him, and another one is coming this week. Schweizer is competing for Mizzou for the final time at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field National Championships in Eugene, Oregon, where she finished third in the 10,000 meters Thursday and has a chance for the 5,000-meter title on Saturday.
“I never dreamt that with two races to go, she would already have five national titles,” Frank Schweizer said before the meet.
His granddaughter has tapped into potential that even she did not believe she had when she set out on those workouts along that suburban road, and she’s won more national championships than any other Mizzou athlete. She’s made people care about her, even if they know little about her sport.
When Schweizer was competing during the recent SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Marc Burns — Missouri’s head cross country coach and assistant distance coach for track and field — received a text from a friend, who told Burns that patrons at a pizza restaurant were “gawking at what Karissa is doing on screen.” Sometimes, people who seem to know little about running come up to Schweizer and offer congratulations. There’s always a good chance she won something recently.
“People everywhere are talking about what she’s doing,” Burns said. “And that’s hard to fathom.”
No one expected this for Schweizer. Her family once even floated the idea that she attend Division II Minnesota State in Mankato, where her grandfather and parents ran, because they knew she’d thrive there. They weren’t sure she could be great at the Division I level.
Even Schweizer herself arrived at Mizzou with what now look like modest goals: She hoped to place at SEC championships and just qualify for nationals. Schweizer does not hold any of her high school’s records, and she won just one state title, in the 3,000 meters during her freshman year, when a heavy contender pulled out of the race.
“She got lucky on that one,” said her father, Mike Schweizer.
Burns believes this is a misleading fact, and perhaps it is. If she wasn’t a talented teenager, Missouri would not have recruited her. But in high school, she did not always stand out among a competitive field, and that colored her view of herself as a runner. Pre-race nerves made her shake, and she’d look around at her competitors.
“She used to be so concerned about who else was in the race,” said Kelly Parriott, her high school track coach.
Once Schweizer started running, she lacked the confidence that she would beat competitors with a strong closing push, so instead she’d exhaust all of her effort to get ahead at the start, only to fall behind.
“I went all out,” Schweizer said, “and slowly died.”
Her attitude and approach began to change while working under Burns, who slowly increased Schweizer’s weekly workload. She went from about running about 30 miles weekly in high school to 40-50 as a freshman. Then 45-60 as a sophomore, 50-65 as a junior. Now she runs as much as 75 miles in a week.
The increased practice produced results sooner than Burns anticipated. As a freshman, Schweizer qualified for the NCAA outdoor and cross country championships. The next year, she utilized a strong finish — a display of confidence she didn’t used to have — to finish third in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, and Burns told her afterward that she would win a national title soon. He was right.
As a junior, she won three national championships: cross country, the indoor 5,000 meters and the outdoor 5,000 meters. In the first two, she utilized late bursts to take leads. In the outdoor 5,000 meters, she burned the competition with about eight laps to go and won by about five seconds.
The momentum has continued since. She has already won two more national titles — the 5,000-meter and 3,000-meter indoor championships — during her senior season, and she could finish her collegiate career with six total.
“If nothing else, it just shows everyone here that it’s possible,” Burns said. “She wasn’t a Foot Locker champion, which is the national high school champion in cross country. She wasn’t a junior national champion. She worked hard. She paid attention to detail. She developed this thing one step at a time.”
Of course, Schweizer wasn’t always patient. When she arrived at MU, she always wanted to run with a group of older, faster women. She wanted to exert maximum effort from the start, just as she always had — but Burns held her back, believing he needed to develop her slowly.
Now Schweizer is too fast for any of the other Missouri women, so she trains alone.