JoJo Quarzo set to Represent Team USA at World U20 Champs

JoJo Quarzo (Above) is set to Represent Team USA at the World XC Championship on Saturday.

By: Phil Grove | MileSplit PA

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Be it gold, silver or bronze, there's nothing quite like the sensation of having a medal draped over one's head at the end of a race. Any athlete surely agrees.

During her record-setting career at Brownsville Area High School, Jolena Quarzo got used to standing on the podium and being duly recognized, having received six PIAA gold medals, another eight WPIAL golds and countless other honors for her efforts on the track and in cross country.

However, none of those moments prepared the now 18-year-old distance standout for being adorned with the Stars and Stripes after qualifying for this Saturday's World Cross Country Championships as a member of Team USA.

"It was definitely an emotional moment for me," Quarzo said of standing with the rest of the USA's U20 women's team members while proudly displaying American flags. "I didn't even know that that was going to happen. It was such a proud moment.

"It's such like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Just being able to have the flag around me was such a great experience. So emotional, and I was very proud of it."

Redshirt Seasons at the Start

With Quarzo having redshirted her first cross country and indoor track seasons for distance powerhouse North Carolina State, the USATF Cross Country Championships on Jan. 20 was a rare competitive outing during the past six months for an athlete who always was a busy high schooler in 1,600s, 3,200s or 5Ks.

"I kind of assumed I would (redshirt) because usually freshmen on NC State's team do because the team is honestly so deep," Quarzo said of joining older sister Gionna on a program that was en route to a third consecutive NCAA XC team title last fall. "I really didn't need to race. 

"I did not think that I would be running the World XC championship (qualifier) by any means. It was not planned. I did other XC meets unattached but definitely did not expect (qualifying) for that big of a meet."

Heading to the USATF meet, JoJo had competed unattached just twice, finishing third in the open 5K at the Adidas XC Challenge in September on the Wolfpack's home course and then second overall at the ECU Pirate Invitational in October.

"I was able to completely practice with the team, just obviously not race in uniform," JoJo said of her training work in the fall. "Coach (Laurie Henes) does not make you go to any races (when you redshirt). Those were just races I wanted to do because I didn't want to jump into track season and not race."

Dialed in For a Top 6 Finish

To earn a spot on the USA's World XC team, Quarzo needed a top 6 finish at Pole Green Park in Richmond, Va. Henes was confident in the training that her first-year runner had put in during her first months in Raleigh.

"JoJo's transition to training here was really smooth," said Henes, director of NC State's track and XC program. "She was training at a pretty high level but didn't get the opportunity to race much this fall so we thought it was important for her to get in a few good races this winter."

Working out with some of the best collegiate distance runners day in and day out enabled Quarzo to be in contention throughout the USATF 6K event. The only time she was not in the top half dozen was at the 1K checkpoint as she was listed 7th in a lead pack of 11 that was separated by just 1.6 seconds.

"The race was a little bit different than things I was used to," she said. "They actually added (hay bales and logs) to the course, which is not something obviously that we had in high school or even in the NCAAs. If you would subtract those things that you had to jump over, the course would have been pretty easy. That made it a little bit more challenging."

Quarzo started to make her move toward the front, checking in 5th at 2K and sharing the top spot with eventual winner Zariel Macchia at the race's midpoint in 10:21.7. She held the No. 2 spot into the final kilometer as the first four were just 0.5 seconds apart. 

Her 20:44.0 was good for third behind HSers Macchia (20:31.0) and Allie Zealand (20:31.9) as the U20 qualifiers for the world meet were the only ones to break 21:00 on the day.

"We are both really excited about the opportunity for her to wear the USA uniform and compete at a world championship," Henes said in congratulating her latest Pennsylvania distance recruit.

Since punching her ticket for Belgrade, Serbia, Quarzo has raced once more, clocking an indoor PR of 16:36.19 in the Valentine Invitational on Boston University's lightning-fast banked oval.

"I really want to run outdoor, and I think I probably can," JoJo said of the season that is just getting started, "but I'll miss Raleigh Relays as that is the same time as World XC. The training is not much different so I can probably do outdoor.

"Me and Coach Henes have been going back and forth seeing what I'll do for outdoor. We are going to see how the XC meet plays out. Going to a different country and stuff can be really tiring, so I think she wants to see how that works out." 

The U20 women's 6K race will kick off Saturday's action in Belgrade, with a field of 92 runners from 21 countries entered. Ethiopia is looking for its fifth consecutive U20 women's team title, with Kenya the runner-up in each of those races. A year ago at Bathurst, Australia, Team USA claimed third and return three of the six who lined up in that race.

Although she has yet to compete in a Wolfpack uniform, Quarzo is looking forward to the upcoming track season and racing with her sister and the rest of Henes' team.

"I didn't expect to come on a team that was this close, family-wise," she said. "Everybody would do anything for each other. I was the only one racing at (the USATF meet) and the whole coaching staff came to support me.

"I had a teammate come, all of the girls were watching the livestream because they were at a different meet. In high school, I didn't have that team stuff and I didn't have that family atmosphere. Having Coach Henes being literally like a second mom to me ... having a team like that, I don't even consider it a team, it really is a family here at NC State."

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