Sarah Cocco’s cross country career has done something unusual for her — start out fast.
Entering college with a reputation as an 800M runner, the freshman has the opportunity to blaze new trails for USC. She’s the first Trojan to start cross country with back-to-back wins. She won the SDSU Aztec Invitational (5K) in mid-September by passing the leader in the final 10 meters. One week later she took the Pepperdine Invitational (6K) with significantly more breathing room. Her finishing kick will come in handy.
“As an 800M runner I have more foot-speed than most of the girls out
there, but probably a little less distance training. I usually go out
slower. I have the head pack in-sight, but I like to relax the first
part of the race and move my way up as it goes. As long as I’m pretty
close in the end and not completely dead, I usually have a pretty good
Coming into the season, Zsofia Erdelyi was expected to lead the team. Erdelyi, also a freshman, moved to Los Angeles from Hungary just a few weeks ago and coach Tom Walsh thinks it will take a 2-3 months for her to adjust and be at her best. In the meantime, Cocco has sprinted ahead. The two are expected to push each other all year.
Coach Walsh was optimistic when asked about his unusually young squad. The Women of Troy were known as a youthful team last year, and this season “we’re even younger,” he chuckled. “It’s just a cycle we’re going through. Sometimes we have juniors and seniors that aren’t as serious and they get weeded out of the program. We did a little bit of that so now we’re young again.” That youth will be critical to turn around a program that finished dead last in the Pac-10 last season. Thanks to the fresh legs, Walsh thinks a top-5 finish is realistic this year, with steady improvement in the future.
All Things Trojan sat down with Sarah Cocco to catch up on her fast start.
When did you get into running?
I was a basketball player for most of my life. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I decided to go out for cross country simply to get in shape for basketball. I was on the run/walk part of the team! It wasn’t until track season that my coach saw my potential. My junior year of track I decided to take running seriously.
Do you still play basketball?
Just for fun. I ended up retiring my junior year of high school and started to focus on track.
You retired at 17?
Yeah! Early retirement!
A lot of people don’t really know how to relate to running, even
if they do it for exercise. Did you have anybody that you looked up to
in the sport?
I have lots of great people to look up to, but to be honest I just
started running and never put much thought into it. I never saw myself
doing that until all of a sudden I started having success. I guess I
never thought about my running that much.
Did running at Colorado altitudes help before coming to a place like LA?
My distance is kind of interesting in terms of elevation. 800M is
truly the mid-distance. People say for long distance it’s better to
train at altitude and then race at sea level, but for the sprints it’s
better to [train] at sea level. So the 800 is that interesting distance
where some people think it’s better to train at altitude and some
people think it’s better to train at sea level. There are kind of some
contradictory views on that! I personally don’t know. I don’t notice it.
When I signed with USC they said “you’ll most likely run cross
country, but you won’t race that much. It’ll be simply as a training
base to get some mileage in for track season.” I didn’t expect the
success at all!
What has been the toughest workout with the team?
There’s all different kinds! We’ve done some 1000M repeats with very
little recovery. Tomorrow we’re doing 1200M repeats uphill. That’s hard.
What’s a typical training week like right now, and then compared to track season? What’s the transition like?
It depends if we have a race that weekend. Usually we’ll have one or
two really hard workouts per week. Those will be faced pace, race pace,
repeats, circuit training, stuff like that. Then we’ll have one
long-run day. It’s slower but it’s long mileage. We’ll have one really
easy day and one day that’s medium. If there’s a race on Saturday we’ll
have a 20 minute jog on Friday. Then there’s the race … the race is
Going from cross country to track, the biggest difference is that
right now I’m doing a lot more mileage. My workouts are longer,
but slower and less intensity. This is completely personal opinion, I
actually think training for the 800 is harder. We’ll be doing way less
miles, but everything we do is higher intensity — fast, fast! It’s really anaerobic. There’s more on the track, more speed work. I
personally think that’s really hard.
We’re in the middle of an urban jungle. When you’re not on the track, where do you run?
There’s a Coliseum loop where all the museums are. There’s about a
two mile loop that goes around all those buildings. We do some workouts
there, there’s the Rose Garden, and we run on certain fields.
Two to three days a week we van off-campus. We’ll go to Santa Monica,
Manhattan Beach, Griffith Park, and other places.
Do you ever do the campus loop?
No, so far we haven’t. When we’re running we try to go at a certain
pace. I think there may be too much traffic or too many people.
Looking forward, what’s your goal this season?
The goals for cross country have changed, I suppose, because of the
success I’ve had. We didn’t really expect it. Next weekend we go to San
Diego and race. To go three-for-three would be very cool! [Knocks on
wood.] A team goal would be to finish top six in the Pac-10 and go to
What about your goals for track season? Will you add any events?
From the beginning we envisioned me being primarily an 800M runner,
but also doing 1500M. Now that I’ve been doing so well in the longer
distances it’s pretty definite that I’ll be running the 800 and the 1500.
Why did you choose USC?
I’ve always loved California. I get booed for this, but my two top
schools were here and UCLA. I am a theater major, so I really wanted to
balance my running and my theater. Both are really important to me.
Both are really good at both schools, but I think when I came here I
just felt really comfortable with the coaches and with everyone on the
team. I just felt that personality-wise and surrounding-wise I fit in
You were offered a role in “Interview With The Vampire” when you
were five. Have you been pursuing acting by going to casting calls?
I want to and I plan to. I want to do that both in the school and
outside of the school and start working towards my career. I made a
conscious decision my first semester to get settled in. I won’t be in
any productions this semester, but hopefully you’ll see me in some next
Cocco’s next act will be when the Women of Troy head to San Diego for the UCSD Triton Invitational this Saturday.
Photos courtesy University of Southern California Athletics.