Christensen on course
Hard work paying off for Peabody runner
As the final bell rang on a glum, rainy afternoon last week, hundreds of students with umbrellas out and hoods up piled out of Peabody High School.
Inside the gym, the boys’ and girls’ cross-country team gathered to stretch and, judging by their shorts and T-shirts, seemed to be unfazed by the weather.
Especially senior captain Nick Christensen, who was itching to finally get outside and run the muddy paths around the school.
In his three years at Peabody High, Christensen has matured, developing from a self-described “punk’’ with a ton of talent to a national-caliber runner.
He already owns the course record, 14:26, at Peabody High, which he set a year ago on the same day that Catarina Rocha set the girls’ record (17:30).
Rain or shine, hot or cold, Christensen simply loves to run but he didn’t always share the same excitement about training.
“In sixth grade, I didn’t go to any practice,’’ said Christensen. “I would just show up at the meets and run.’’
Although he wasn’t the dedicated runner he is today, his talent was obvious even then.
In eighth grade, Christensen met varsity cross-country coach Jose Rocha and track coach Fernando Braz, whose guidance has transformed him as an athlete and a person.
“I first met him when he was in middle school,’’ said Rocha. “I saw a kid with a lot of potential and a kid who loves to run. And that hasn’t changed.’’
“They told me, ‘You’re coming up to high school next year so you are going to have to take this more serious,’ ’’ said Christensen. “Freshman year I was a little bit of a punk. They taught me how to be a man. They made me who I am.’’
Last November, Christensen placed third at the Division 1 All-State meet at Gardner Municipal Gold Course behind two seniors, making him the favorite to reach the top of the podium this year. He says that the race was his greatest cross-country moment so far.
“It showed that my hard work paid off, all those awful miles in 95-degree heat,’’ Christensen said.
“A little more summer training was a payoff,’’ emphasized Rocha. “Hopefully it will be again this year.’’
Christensen’s ultimate goal this season is to qualify for the
After taking some time off at the beginning of the summer to rest a bad ankle sprain he suffered at the end of the outdoor track season, Christensen went back to work in training.
“It all paid off last year, so I buckled down in my training even more,’’ he said. “In the heart of the summer, I was running about 70-75 miles a week.’’
“As a coach you are the communicator. It’s up to them how they are going to get there,’’ said Rocha, whose advice to Christensen was to put in the work all summer and the rest would take care of itself.
Christensen trains with fellow senior captain T.J. D’Amato. They have been running together since freshman year, but last year D’Amato’s season ended early when he narrowly missed qualifying for the state meet.
“It just makes me hungry for this season,’’ he said.
D’Amato stayed on to train with Christensen and Evan Braz, who has continued his running career at Merrimack College. “We have good chemistry,’’ said D’Amato.
“We didn’t want to break that up, so coach had me continue training with them.’’
Christensen proudly describes himself as “a little bit of loose kid,’’ so when a sixth-grade teacher dubbed him “The Squirrel’’ the nickname stuck.
“Just because he’s crazy,’’ said D’Amato. “He is fun to be around but when it’s time to run, he’s serious.’’
Christensen listens to his iPod to get focused before every race.
His taste in music ranges from country to rap depending on his mood, he says, but listening to music is a necessary element in his prerace warmup.
“I always have my iPod in before races, right up to the last minute. Officials yell at me all the time,’’ he said. “I don’t want any distractions and music helps me focus in.’’
Rocha says that Christensen’s experience and dedication help make everyone around him better. “He is committed and his dedication is obvious,’’ said the coach. “The younger athletes learn from him every day.’’
“He’s a good teammate,’’ agreed D’Amato. “He forces you to work to the best of your ability. He takes his team with him.’’
Even Catarina Rocha, the reigning EMass. Division 1 champion and runner-up at the All-State Meet behind Andrea Keklak of Lincoln-Sudbury, had benefited from Christensen’s leadership.
“He has a little more experience than I do and he gives me good advice,’’ she said. “I don’t know if I’m the best yet. All of Division 1 is competitive.’’
“Catarina was tremendous last year,’’ said her father, Jose. “She went way beyond my expectations in cross-country and she’s been doing even more training than last year.’’
Christensen said that it is “exciting that we could have two potential champions. The program is great for cross-country and track. I think we have two of the best coaches in the state, maybe even the nation.’’
With perhaps the top male and female runner in the state at Peabody High, Christensen may be right.
Every runner in the state will be trying to tackle these two and both are up for the challenge.
“I think our goal is to improve from last year’s performance,’’ said Jose Rocha. “Nick has improved greatly since he was a freshman and cross-country training is designed to peak at your senior year.’’
The Tanners kick off their run Tuesday afternoon against visiting Salem.
Cat Calsolaro can be reached at email@example.com.