Following her sophomore season, senior cross country runner Cali Roper did something no Rice runner had done before. She became the first Owl to earn the Conference USA Female Cross Country Athlete of the Year Award following a first place finish in the conference championships. Last year, she won it again. And she finished first the conference championships. Again.

The list of accolades goes on. Roper is the first Rice cross country runner to qualify for NCAA nationals in consecutive years since the mid-1980s. She has been on the Conference USA All-Academic team for two consecutive years. Last season, she was the Owls’ top finisher in all six meets as the team won the conference championship. Despite all of her accomplishments, Roper said that her success has not changed her approach to the sport.

“I tell myself to stay humble, that anything can happen,” Roper said. “I still have to work just as hard and it doesn’t make the running any easier.”

Roper was not always committed to running. She was initially a two-sport athlete in high school on the volleyball and soccer teams. According to Roper, she only joined the cross country team due to a coach’s cold call.

“[The cross country coach] gave me a house call,” Roper said. “That’s what’s so great about small towns. I told him I didn’t have enough time to be on the team but he so kindly worked around my schedule.”

Thanks to that coach’s call, Roper began a standout high school career. She twice won the state championship in the 3200 meter event. Then, in her senior season, she claimed the state championship in cross country. Eventually, Roper said she realized if she wanted to earn a scholarship to college, running was her best shot. According to Roper, the choice to come to Rice was an easy one.

“As a young child, I remember telling my mom, ‘Oh, I want to go [to Rice],” Roper said. “When I came to Rice on my visit, it was clear that the education here would be the best and the coaches really care about the athletes.”

Since she arrived on campus, she has succeeded both in and out of the classroom. As mentioned earlier, she is a two-year member of the Conference USA All-Academic team. Roper said that balancing athletics and academics has not been easy.

“It can be overwhelming and I definitely learned that the hard way,” Roper said. “I was overcommitting myself and not enjoying the process. But I’ve had amazing mentors at Rice. By taking things one step at a time I’ve been able to achieve all my goals.”

So far this season, the cross country team is off to a stellar start. It has won its first two meets, most recently a narrow two-point victory over Baylor University to win the 17-team Texas A&M University Invitational. Roper said she has high hopes for the defending conference champion Owls this season.

“We have some great girls on the cross country team,” Roper said. “With how good our team is this year, definitely our goal should be to try to qualify as a team for nationals.”

After their undefeated start to the season, the Owls will continue to pursue that goal in the Rim Rock Classic in Lawrence, Kan. on Saturday, Oct. 1 at 9 a.m.