After a brilliant four-year running career at Seattle Pacific University, Jessica Pixler set her sights on a graduate degree and bridging the gap between Division II track and a possible professional career.
At Colorado, she's gotten that and much more . . . the least of which is a new last name. In December 2011, Jessica Pixler became Jessica Tebo after meeting and eventually marrying former CU track standout Matt Tebo.
"I guess I'm coming away with a bunch of pretty good things - a grad degree and a husband," Tebo said last week, grinning broadly. "I can't complain; CU has treated me well."
There's an abundance of truth in that last statement.
At Seattle Pacific, Tebo played soccer and ran track until midway through her freshman year when she concluded that running without kicking a ball might be her calling. But competing in both sports for most of her first year did more than sap her energy and leave her listless at times.
"It trashed my ankle," she said.
The long-term effects of that two-sport trashing wouldn't surface until last spring, when she reinjured her ankle. Her old injury list included more than that: she suffered a fractured femur in 2008 and lower back fractures later took her off the track for three months.
But when she spoke with her parents in Sammamish, Wash., about taking advantage of a fifth year of eligibility and finally settled on CU as the place to use it, the ankle proved to be the ailment that ultimately needed attention if her running career was to continue.
CU piqued Pixler's interest for several reasons - none of which included the prospect of finding a husband. (But keep in mind that she's a person of strong faith and will tell you how good things continue to happen unexpectedly.) Both of her parents, Jeff and Nancy, attended CU and ran, plus the reputations of coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs were well-established in the running world.
All those factors gave the Buffs the, ah, inside track.
"I knew they were two of the best in the country; their record speaks to that. And I wanted to be coached by the best," Tebo said. "They're incredibly professional; it really has been a good transition. It's been a very different experience than at SPU, but it's been really good for preparing me for the real world."
She couldn't step boldly into the real world, though, on that bad ankle, which required what she termed "pretty intense" surgery last April and limited her to three early races in the 2011 outdoor season. Her surgery was performed by Dr. Thomas Clanton at Vail's renowned Steadman Clinic.
"I'll be forever grateful to CU for putting me in the situation where I could have one of the best in the world perform my surgery and they were willing to give me that service before we even knew I was going to get a sixth year (of eligibility)," she said.
"I don't know if many other athletes would be racing now given the nature of my surgery. (CU assistant trainer Melisa Fazio) and I worked our butts off to make sure that I could come back. It was pretty incredible that CU was willing to invest that much in me."
Wetmore & Co. are pretty shrewd investors. Figuring Tebo could regain the form that took her to a dozen NCAA Division II championships (six in indoor track, three in cross country, three in the 1,500 meters) and earned her the Division II Athlete of the Year award by the U.S. Track and Field Cross Country Coaches Association, the CU coaches thought whatever they could do for Tebo was worth it.
Tebo's SPU resume sparkled and spoke for itself, but Wetmore got a brief first-hand glimpse of her ability last spring when she won the 1,500 and the 800 in a pair of early local meets, as well as outdistancing a handful of professional runners in the 5,000 in the prestigious Stanford Invitational. All that came before she re-trashed her ankle.
Tebo's time of 15:25.58 in the Stanford 5k last spring stood as a personal best until two weekends ago at Stanford's Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational. She won the event in 15:19.43 - the fastest 5k time in the NCAA this season and the second-fastest ever 5k at CU. She earned an Olympic (15:20.00) and a U.S. Olympic Trials 'A' standard (15:35.00).
Given that it was only her second race this year and second 5k in two years, Tebo had reason to be surprised by her effort. She wasn't.
"Not really," she said. "My training has been going quite well and I think I can run faster. It's still early in the season."
Next up are the Pac-12 Conference championships this weekend in Eugene, Ore. Behind Tebo, the league's top 5k times this season belong to California's Deborah Maier (15:29.24), Stanford's Kathy Kroeger (15:33.76), Oregon's Alex Kosinski (15:36.90) and Oregon's Jordan Hasay (15:44.87).
Three of Tebo's CU teammates have posted 5k times that are among the top 25 in the Pac-12 this season: No. 10 Shalaya Kipp (16:00.40), No. 13 Camille Logan (16:14.24) and No. 24 Jana Stolting (16:38.54).
Since this weekend's Pac-12 meet will be "in the neighborhood," relatively speaking, Tebo expects family members, former coaches and maybe a few friends to show up in Eugene. The prospect of "some really excellent competition" intrigues her. "The Pac-12 has to be one of the best (track) conferences - one of the top three anyway."
Beyond the conference meet, the NCAA Championships and whatever else awaits her at the collegiate level, Tebo is eyeing a professional career that she hoped her CU experience would help transition her into - and things appear to be moving in that direction.
Matt, her husband, also is "trying to achieve that dream, and we'd like to do it together and support each other," she said. "It's fun to be young and not have too many responsibilities yet. We're trying to go for a dream and enjoying the ride.
"We'll see what God has planned, have faith and make sure we're enjoying the time together."
There could be more than more running in her future. She's as proficient and focused in the classroom as she is on the track. Last spring, she won the NCAA Walter Byers Postgraduate Scholarship, which will pay for another couple years of graduate school.
"I'm thinking of applying for a doctoral program in English . . . that's another dream of mine," Tebo said. "I'm a huge geek and I love school. I'm not done with school yet - six years and I'm ready for more. I keep on having all these things provided for me that I don't anticipate. I'm very fortunate."