Alexia Hecico stood atop the podium, overwhelmed with emotion.
She had just won the World Mountain Running Championships, and was flanked by thousands of admirers while Deșteaptǎ-te, române, the national anthem of her home country of Romania, blared overhead. It was a defining moment for a runner who had spent countless hours honing her craft and working to be the best at her event.
“I was getting goosebumps. I’m proud of where I’m from, but I think that moment made me realize that I made a change in how people see my country and [what] they know about it,” Hecico, a junior business administration major, said. “I’m so proud that I was part of something so historic.”
Hecico may have won first place with the Romanian U20 team at the world championships in 2017, but her journey atop the mountain — and the podium — began years earlier.
As a kid, the Baia Mare, Romania native took up swimming — something she embraced until her coach, one of her father’s old friends, started putting too much pressure on her. “She [her coach] saw potential in me and I think that’s when she started putting herself first and not what we [Hecico and her parents] wanted,” Hecico says.
Hecico had a tough time escaping that experience. She recalls crying before races because she feared not being able to perform to the high standards she was being held up to.
Her own mind proved to be her biggest obstacle at the start of her running career, but Hecico had a coach who would never give up on her: her mother.
Hecico says her parents were her biggest supporters along her journey. With her mother coaching her, and her father joining her on runs and offering feedback, she was destined for success on the trails.
“They made sure that everything I did, I understood that nothing bad was going to happen. They weren’t going to punish me if I wasn’t hitting my times or I wasn’t feeling good, or if I didn’t win a race,” Hecico said.
‘I just need to have a good race’
Hecico’s running career soared to new levels when she entered a mountain running race by accident, believing it was cross country. What started as a mistake quickly turned into a triumph when she left those trails victorious. From there, it was the Balcan and European Championships, for a chance to prove herself on the grandest stage.
“2016 was definitely the year that made me say OK, you know what, I’m going to fix everything that is not going the way I want it to and I’m going to put in the work and see what happens,” Hecico said.
Despite being a novice to mountain running, Hecico’s strong will helped guide her to the World Championships. After finishing in 31st place in 2016, a spark ignited inside her that pushed her to new limits.
Training six days a week, sometimes more than once per day, her efforts paid off in 2017 when she continually found the podium.
Hecico finished third at the U18 Mountain Running Cup. She traveled to the European Championships with Team Romania, where her team placed second (Hecico finished fifth individually). And she reached the podium at the Balcan Championships, where she placed second again. But that wasn’t the end of her journey.
Hecico went on to win the 2017 World Championships with Team Romania and came up just short of an individual medal after placing fourth in the competition. She says she was confident in her abilities heading into the race.
“I went into the race knowing I can’t do worse than the year before, so I didn’t have any pressure. I wasn’t thinking about whether I need to beat X, Y or Z,” she said. “I just need to have a good race and be proud of how I run.”
Hecico was overwhelmed yet prideful, standing among some of the world’s best athletes at such a young age.
New doors of opportunity began to open up for Hecico after she got in contact with Paul Kirsch — a U.S. junior mountain running team manager — who encouraged her to run in the states. The two met at the World Championships in 2017, after Hecico introduced herself to Kirsch as she went to congratulate the U.S. team.
Kirsch was instantly impressed by Hecico’s speed and tenacity.
“She was pretty fierce about trying to catch third place,” he said. “She didn’t, but she was really pushing it, as hard as she could. That was very admirable.”
From there, Kirsch was able to help Hecico with her résumé, provide her with coaching contacts and offer encouragement.
“Here was this kid who approached somebody, and I thought that took a certain amount of guts, so I just wanted to help,” he said. “I thought, here’s this talented person, she’s well-spoken, she’s nice and it was easy to give her feedback on her résumé.”
‘I found my second family here’
Soon after meeting Kirsch, coaches from colleges across the U.S. began offering her scholarships.
“I decided that I really want[ed] a good school academically, because I know that my running career will stop at some point. I need a back-up plan,” Hecico said. “So I ended up emailing every coach from the top-100 academic universities and UB was definitely the best choice because I wanted a full scholarship.”
Her recruitment journey began in September 2017, but Hecico didn’t hear from UB until November of the following year. Months before she had to sign her National Letter of Intent, head coach Vicki Mitchell approached her offering a full ride.
“Her athletic performances were very strong in mountain running, which is a very demanding running event. We do not compete in mountain running in the NCAA system, but I felt that her physical strength and mental toughness to race at a very high level in mountain running would translate well to NCAA cross country and distance events on the track,” Mitchell said. “As I got to know Alexia, I began to understand her passion for competing, and felt that she would be a good fit for our program. Most importantly, she was extremely strong academically.”
But academics weren’t the only thing on Hecico’s college search list. Given that she would be 4,000 miles away from home and on a different continent, she was searching for a soothing atmosphere and a positive relationship with her coach.
“I had to have someone who I knew would have my back, that I could talk to, and would make me feel at home. That is exactly what happened at UB,” she said. “I found my second family here. I had to be in a place where I could feel comfortable after leaving home for nine months.”
But just before she started her career as a Bull, tragedy struck.
Hecico’s father, one of her life-long supporters, unexpectedly passed away in spring 2019.
The news rocked her world and halted her training for two weeks. It left her unable to compete at the World and European Championships.
“Mentally, I was just exhausted, and also physically. I had to take two weeks off after the news because I couldn’t move, couldn’t get out of bed,” Hecico said.
Her resilience shined through as she refused to let this become a barrier.
When she does struggle, she thinks of running with her father, as well as his coaching points.
“He would always say what I wanted to hear, the things that would make me feel more confident and calm. I remember every single time before a race he was telling me the same exact thing,” Hecico said. “He would say, ‘Alexia, don’t even stress about it. The outcome won’t end up better than it will. You will not be able to change the outcome. Give your best, that’s it.’”
Hecico says her father’s wisdom helps her stay in a good headspace.
But once she arrived in Buffalo, Hecico had to deal with another obstacle: adjusting to life in a foreign country. Hecico passed that test with flying colors, according to Mitchell.
“Alexia actually made the process of moving to a new country look easy. I believe her experience in travel[ing] through her international competitions in high school helped with that aspect,” Mitchell said. “After the obvious things such as jet lag, I think one of the most challenging aspects for her [is] being away from her mother/home for so long. Academically, she has excelled from day one.”
Hecico runs toward any obstacle with a heart full of determination and a soul that refuses to accept mediocrity.
“I have a saying in mountain running,” Hecico said. “You’re competing with yourself and you’re competing with the mountain. The mountain is the one that is actually giving you a hard time, so you need to look at it as a companion, but at the same time something that is there for you to challenge.”
Kayla Sterner is an assistant sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kayla Sterner is an assistant sports editor at The Spectrum. She is studying communications with the hopes of being a sideline reporter. In her spare time, she can be found in the gym, watching football or vibing to Mac Miller. Kayla is on Twitter @kaylasterner.