Kristen Findley leads Vandy’s runners with very adventurous spirit

Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 10:05pm
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Kristen Findley (Courtesy Daniel Dubois/Vanderbilt Photography)

When September rolled around, Kristen Findley developed a case of happy feet.

Along with anxiously awaiting for her senior cross-country season at Vanderbilt, she felt her nomadic soul needed to be replenished.

“I don’t really like to stay in one place for too long,” Findley said. “Staying here for the [2011-12] school year and the summer and the school year again, I was really excited for some of our away meets just so I could get out.”

Seeking adventure is a way of life for Findley, who leads the Commodores into the Southeastern Conference Championships Friday morning at Percy Warner Park. Only 21, she has visited more than 30 countries, lived in three states and taken up residence in the Middle East.

“She doesn’t see any real limits for herself, which is great,” Vanderbilt cross-country and track coach Steve Keith said. “It shows in her personality.”

Originally from Boise, Idaho, Findley moved to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, when she was 10 as her father, Jim, a chemical engineer, took a job with the oil company Saudi Aramco. She called the Arabic nation home for the next four years, before attending boarding school in California.

“Your mind at that age is still very adaptable,” Findley said of her time in Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights are very restricted compared to the West. “I just kind of went with the flow, and so did my [two] sisters. What was a completely different culture became normal for us. ... It was really awesome. I think it was so good for my sisters and me to see different cultures from such a young age. We really got a lot of opportunities to travel, living there. That was probably the best part of living over there — all the travel.”

She slept in treehouses in a game reserve in South Africa. Her entire family bungee jumped in New Zealand on top of a five-day bike ride through the island country, Findley’s favorite. She watched her father compete in a master’s water polo tournament in Australia.

Her biggest adventure came two summers ago when she climbed the Matterhorn.

With its summit approaching 15,000 feet above sea level, the Matterhorn is one of the highest peaks in the Alps, sitting on the border of Switzerland and Italy. The trek was two years in the making. It was Findley’s high school graduation gift from her dad. The duo trained for a week in 2009 in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and then before taking on the Matterhorn, they underwent five days of training with a professional guide.

She hiked the treacherous terrain in eight hours. Facing an intense climate change, she slogged through snow and used fixed ropes to jet up the mountainside.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Findley said. “I thought I was ready for it, but it was just a whole different ballgame up there. It is a different type of hard. ... You’re on the go the whole time. I think I stopped to drink and eat maybe once. It was really tough, but it was so rewarding at the end, and it was especially rewarding to do it with my dad.”

Topping literal and metaphorical heights is ingrained in Findley, who chose the grueling major of biomedical engineering.

When she graduates this spring, she plans to pursue a career in ophthalmology and is currently applying for graduate schools. She became enthralled with restoring vision to the blind after working at a summer camp for the visually impaired and blind in Napa, Calif.

“It was the most incredible experience ever,” Findley said. “It was amazing to see how competent they were. A lot of these people who had no vision were playing basketball and soccer. Someone would tap the rim and these people would just take a shot and make it. They would use their other senses, and it was just
incredible.”

While at the camp, Findley began training for her freshman cross-country season at Vanderbilt.

Initially a walk-on, Findley earned a full-ride this year after a breakout junior campaign. She helped lead Vanderbilt to its first SEC cross-country championship. In track, she contributed to breaking four school records, including two individual. Her time of 4:16.57 in the 1,500 meters was the fourth-best at the 2012 SEC Championships and met the Olympic provisional “B” standard for the U.S. Trials.

“My dad tells me that almost every time I talk to him that he doesn’t know what to expect any more,” Findley said. “I was just excited to run at a Division I school when I first came here. I was excited that they were letting me run. I never expected my times would drop like they did.”

The gradual progress sparks confidence in Findley that she could run professionally. At this point, no challenge is too daunting.

“I always set some sort of realistic goal and in the back of my mind is what I consider my overambitious goal,” Findley said. “There have been a lot of times where I’ve written both of these down and I feel like that sets them into action. There have been multiple times where I’ve written down these really far-reaching goals that I never thought I’d get to, and then they happen. I guess it is just my nature to go big.”