BILLINGS – Believe it or not, at one point, Tiahna Vladic thought she would pursue softball more than running.
Growing up, she played softball forever. But ultimately, the Billings Senior standout found more happiness with running.
Imagine, one of the most storied cross country and track and field high school careers in the state’s history might not have even existed had she opted for the diamond.
“I had to make that decision in eighth grade about whether to do cross country or softball, and I knew cross country I was more in love with,” Vladic said. “Softball was just more for fun and I definitely couldn’t make a college career out of it.
“I definitely didn’t know it would take me this far but I’m happy I made the decision because I love cross country and track.”
Safe to say that decision has worked out for the better.
Now a senior, Vladic is gearing up for her final high school cross country race, so naturally, plenty of reflecting is a major part.
“I remember being out here with Christina (Aragon) out here running but here I am as a senior,” Vladic said. “It’s kind of scary but I’m also super excited and happy with where I am.”
And who can blame her.
Vladic will exit as one of the state’s most decorated high school cross country runners. As a freshman she finished third at state, and followed that by winning it all as a sophomore. Her junior year she placed second behind Bozeman’s Camila Noe, who finished second behind Vladic the year prior.
All of those top three finishes set up for the grand finale this Saturday in Missoula in her swan song for high school cross country.
Losing to Noe, who now competes at the University of Portland, has been in the back of Vladic's mind but she didn’t want it to play too big of a role in how she went about this year. But occasionally it does pop up, adding a little more inspiration to closing her final campaign out on top.
“It definitely has put a lot of drive in me,” Vladic said. “Losing to Camila, she is a great runner so I wasn’t too upset. In the moment I was, but afterwards I was like, ‘It’s ok, move on from it.’ Definitely this year has given me a lot of redemption and I was just ready to run this year.
“Last year was a great year, I just felt like I needed to give more. I felt like I still had more when I ended that season so I was hungry for me and I definitely wanted some redemption back here as a senior.”
While Vladic was a star from the beginning, like most high school kids, she has grown throughout her years of sports and life. On the course, trusting her training more and running more strategically has been the area of focus.
“In the past I always have trusted my training, but now being older and wiser, well, definitely not too old,” she said with a laugh thinking about it, “but as a senior I definitely know that all of the summer running and long miles really pay off. As a freshman and sophomore you’re kind of like, ‘Eh, that’s kind of long mileage. Are we supposed to do this before a race?’ But now, really, it’s super important and to just trust my training and have fun.”
Vladic said she also saw herself grow mentally. To be expected from any kid, but Vladic said her junior year she struggled with keeping her passion in running and seemed to almost forget why she was competing in the first place.
“Coming off of my sophomore year with the state win and the track season was a little bit bumpy going into junior year, I definitely lost a lot in my head about why I was doing it,” Vladic said candidly. “I kind of got down on myself and then the summer of this year I really found why I love running again. Just to have fun with it.
“(Junior year) was definitely a hard year just mentally for me being with Annie (Hill of Kalispell Glacier and now the University of Colorado) and Camila in the back of my head every race and always racing them. It was definitely kind of wearing on me but this summer I really learned to love running again.”
The results have shown exactly that. Running a more strategic and stress-free style, Vladic has won almost every race she has competed in this year. Her lone “loss” was in Great Falls, where head coach Sarah Lord had her run for pace to help her teammates instead of racing to win.
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Lord said. “It’s amazing to see the progress that she’s made. Obviously, she was a standout from day one, but she’s continued to build on that and grow and evolve as a runner which has been really fun to see. It’s sad to see her go.
“She came in as a ball of fire. She had so much guts. That hasn’t changed at all but she has become a much smarter racer and so it’s been really fun to see her take those guts that she’s had since the beginning and channel them a little bit more of a strategic racer.”
She found her enjoyment of the sport again through long, easy miles over the summer. Those runs gave her a chance to look back and appreciate what she was doing, both on the course and off it with her teammates. She mentioned having two of her best friends, fellow seniors and twins Jade and Jaylyn Hallgrimson, throughout her life having been a huge bright spot to look back on.
“When you’re doing 10 miles by yourself, you’re in your head a lot so you learn to just love it and just have fun with it,” Vladic said. “A lot of times I look back (and reflect) even with the different teammates I’ve had and how our team and dynamics have changed and looking at my own times. It’s fun to look back on.
“There are a lot of fun moments that you need to be grateful for and treasure.”
As the Aragon sisters – Alexa, Dani and Christina – created a wave of new Senior High running standouts, Vladic has since carried that torch and legacy forward.
“I’m very grateful to have them,” Vladic said. “Coming in having Christina, she was the greatest mentor I could have possibly had and greatest friend to this day. I think it’s really shaped who I am. I think if I wouldn’t have had her as a freshman I kind of would’ve been a little lost. She really taught me a lot so I’m definitely grateful to have them.”
Going forward, Saturday’s race obviously won’t be her last. Vladic, as she has in the past, will compete at Nike Cross Regionals Northwest on Nov. 10 in Boise, Idaho. If she places top five there, she advances to Nike Cross Nationals in Portland on Dec. 1.
As far as college, Vladic has narrowed down her options to three schools including Boise State, Oklahoma State and Minnesota, the latter where friend and former Senior teammate Dawson LaRance currently competes. Her goal is to visit all three and she hopes to make a decision before track season begins. She said she is looking at a couple of other schools, but those three top the list.
“It’s honestly mind-blowing and that’s what kind of brings me back to softball,” Vladic said. “If I would’ve chosen softball, would I have gotten the same opportunities that I’m getting with running? It’s definitely crazy.”
But for now, her focus is Saturday. And while who knows what softball would have brought to her, Vladic’s choice has worked out for the better as her high school chapter comes to a close. Both Lord and Vladic said they haven’t really talked about how this is her final high school cross country race. That conversation, and those emotions, will come after Vladic crosses the finish line.
“Even though it isn’t my last race, I know it’s my last time running state as a Bronc cross country runner, so I definitely am sad about it,” Vladic said. “I’m excited to see what happens.”