It had been five years since a Blue Devil medaled at an NCAA Championships.
But senior Erin Marsh had a goal of finishing top-three in the pentathlon, and she wouldn't be denied.
The Buford, Ga., native finished third in the five-event pentathlon to take home the bronze medal last Thursday at the NCAA Indoor Championships, notching a new school record with 4,344 points en route to first-team All-America status.
"It was really exciting when the pentathlon ended, and I knew that I came in third, and I had accomplished that goal of being first-team All-American and then being top-three the nation," Marsh said. "I mean, it was really exciting to finish on that good of a note."
However, the road to get to that top-three finish wasn't without its bumps.
Marsh earned first place in the 60-meter hurdles among the 16 women competing in the pentathlon, but followed that up with a disappointing sixth-place finish in the next event, the high jump.
"High jump didn't go according to plan at all," Marsh said.
While Marsh was "extremely disappointed" following that second event, interim head coach Shawn Wilbourn helped her realize that the end goal she set for herself was still well within reach.
"That was actually something that I was most proud of this weekend, was how I stayed positive, just mentally focused on still achieving that third place.... [Wilbourn] pulled me aside, and he was just like, 'This is where you have to focus on mental toughness. This is the mental part of the sport. This is just the mental part of the pentathlon. You kind of have to just flip a switch in your brain and acknowledge that you didn't do as well as you wanted to on a single event, and there's still opportunities to make up for that.'"
Marsh followed that pep talk up with personal records in the shot put and 800-meter run as well as a third-place finish in the long jump to clinch the bronze medal. She also earned 12th place in the open 60-meter hurdles Friday to take home second-team All-America honors in that event.
But Marsh wasn't the only Duke athlete to impress at the meet.
Fellow senior Leigha Torino was the lone other Blue Devil to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships, entering the week with the 15th-best 800-meter time in the country. And the Citra, Fla., native only improved upon that against the best competition in the country, securing ninth place at the meet with a time of 2:05.74 in the semifinals of the event Friday.
While Torino came a mere 1.5 seconds short of qualifying for the finals (the top eight times among the two heats of the semifinals), the performance still earned her second-team All-America status.
"It's still settling [in] to me. I'm still pretty shocked when I talk to people about it," Torino said. "So it's good. It's exciting."
Marsh and Torino have had pretty different roads to get to this point.
The former has been consistently competing in the pentathlon since her freshman year and has steadily improved in the event since then, including a gold medal at the 2020 ACC Indoor Championships. She didn't compete in the pentathlon at this year's ACC Indoor Championships—Wilbourn said he and Marsh decided for her to just compete in the individual open events to try and maximize the team's point total—but it's safe to say it remained her focus throughout her indoor collegiate career.
Torino, on the other hand, said she "didn't run the 800 very much the past three years," instead focusing on longer events such as the mile.
Then, she opened this indoor season with a first-place finish in the 800 at the Hokie Invitational Jan. 22, and just went from there.
"We didn't even plan on me being strictly the 800. It's just when I raced it at my opening race [at] Virginia Tech this past indoor season, and took a couple seconds off my PR [personal record], I was like, 'Oh, wow, this is great,'" Torino said. "Then it was just another race that we added for every weekend that I raced. And then I was continually getting better and shaving off my PR, so then it just became something that we stuck to. And I really, really enjoy racing the 800. It's kind of an easy transition—the workouts aren't different, nothing was really different. It just kind of came out of nowhere."
Both Marsh and Torino have clear goals in mind going into the outdoor track season, whether it be top-two nationally in the seven-event heptathlon for the former—Wilbourn said Marsh is "actually better outdoors than indoors"—or reaching the final of the 800-meter at NCAAs for the latter. Marsh also said winning the ACC as a team is another realistic goal.
But in a season that nearly didn't even happen, sometimes it's just best to enjoy the moment.
"The main goal is honestly just continuing to have fun with racing...just to enjoy the process," Torino said.
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