Natalie Rodriguez makes her professional debut at Sunday’s 34th Carlsbad 5000 and just maybe someone will shout “Chi-co, Chi-co” to boost her performance.
“She is so sweet, so kind and so nice,” said Steve Scott, the race’s co-founder and Rodriguez’s former Cal State University San Marcos coach. “Then she gets into a race and she turns into a lioness.”
Hear them roar and Rodriguez got an earful at last year’s California Collegiate Athletic Association 5K final in Turlock, California.
After winning the 1,500-meter event, Rodriguez attempted her second triumph just hours later in the 5,000. But she trailed the leader, a competitor from nearby Chico State, until she heard those magic words.
“In the last 300 meters she had to make up 50 meters,” Scott said. “Just then the “Chi-co, Chi-co” chant started down the home stretch and it really ticked Natalie off. With every stride Natalie was cutting down the distance she was behind and she just barely nips her at the finish line.
“Natalie had already won a race; she was a conference champion and could have easily coasted in. But that showed her competitive spirit and it really kicked in when they started doing that chant.”
That Rodriguez became the first NCAA Division II All-American from CSUSM was a kick in the britches for the entire school. Count Rodriguez as among the most surprised that it was her.
Rodriguez, 22, didn’t start running until high school. After verbal agreeing to attend San Diego State University, her coach suggested CSUSM and its program directed by Scott, one of the greatest America runners ever.
That was Rodriguez’s response as she didn’t know Scott, a three-time Olympian and the owner of a mind-boggling 136 sub 4-minute miles.
Scott transformed from being anonymous to a godsend for Rodriguez.
“I owe everything to him,” said Rodriguez, who lives and trains in San Luis Obispo. “He was so supportive. He made it a point to say running is great and it’s fun but there are a lot of other things in life, too, and that helps when you are a student-athlete.”
Rodriguez, an excellent scholar, exited CSUSM with a degree and as one of its most decorated athletes with records at 5,000, 3,000 and 1,500 meters.
“It took her about two-and-half years to really figure out what she needed to do to reach the next level,” Scott said. “Now she has all the ingredients: she can train hard, she is durable and she has that tenacity. But you talk to her before the race and she is so nice that you think she isn’t going to do anything.”
Instead she’s going for everything as she chases runners, and a paycheck.
“It was a dream of mine but I wasn’t sure it would be something that I would ever be able to do,” said Rodriguez, who also works as a family counselor. “After I made a big jump with my performances at CSUSM, I realized I should take advantage of this opportunity when I’m young.”
She’ll toe the line at the good old Carlsbad 5000, a trek that was concocted by — what’s that guy’s name again?
“I had no idea Coach Scott designed the course,” Rodriguez said. “He is so humble that he never brags about anything.”
Although Scott will speak forever about his athletes, especially ones like Rodriguez.
“She has that natural ability,” Scott said. “She can definitely take it to the next level and I can’t wait see how far she goes.”
Contact Jay Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @jparis_sports
Sportswriter Jay Paris has written his “Sports Talk” column since joining the Coast News in 2013.
Paris, a Cardiff resident, is a longtime Southern California writer, getting his start with the Orange County Register before coming to San Diego in 1992 to cover the Chargers.
He had the Chargers beat for more than two decades with Oceanside Blade-Citizen, the North County Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, before being named a sports columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Paris has won numerous awards voted on by his peers in the Pro Football Writers of America. He has also been a staple on countless media platforms, everything from the KPBS to MLB Network and various radio outlets.
Paris is also the author of three books, with his latest one being, “Shohei Ohtani: The Amazing Story Of Baseball’s Two-Way Japanese Superstar.” He has also written “Game Of My Life Chargers” and “Game Of My Life Rams.”
He currently covers the NFL in Los Angeles for Forbes. com and is a contributor to USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow Jay on Twitter @jparis_sports