Mancl ’17 aims for win-win in athletics, agriculture

by Erin Dahl,

  • Olivia Mancl ’17

Olivia Mancl ’17 relies on instinct when she runs. It tells her when to pace herself and when to push harder, when to overtake an opponent and when to bide her time.

And it tells her when she’s about to win.

“When I run, I zone out,” says Mancl, who’s involved in both track and cross country at Willamette. “Sometimes I don’t remember a single thought I had during the race. I just know what to do, and I do it.”

Mancl’s instincts helped her win a Northwest Conference championship in the 1,500-meter run and place second at the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships. Away from the track, that same intuition helped the biology major discover her passion for sustainable agriculture.

“We need to think about food in the context of our daily lives and the daily economy,” Mancl says. “We need a more sustainable food system.”

A Way of Life

Growing up, Mancl played soccer and danced. When high school friends convinced her to try running, the sport became a way of life.  

“I love to run. I love to compete,” she says. “It’s a form of meditation for me.”

Mancl runs or cross trains every day. She’s driven to be better, to do better — which helped her place second at the 2015 NCAA Division III Cross-Country Championships in Wisconsin.

“The fans were so loud, I couldn’t hear myself breathe,” she says. “I achieved my goal of placing in the top 10, and I still have another year to try to get first.”

Head coach Matt McGuirk and assistant head coach Brett Franz are not surprised by Mancl’s achievements. Describing her as a team player and focused competitor, they say she epitomizes the ideal student-athlete. She eats well, trains hard, is committed to her sport, and strives for academic excellence. 

“We all have choices to do things the easy way or the best way,” McGuirk says. “She chooses the best way.”

Lay of the Land

When not competing, Mancl works on farms in the Pacific Northwest that promote sustainable food systems through striving for environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. They adopt such practices as growing organic crops, providing laborers with safe working conditions, and improving water conservation and storage measures.  

Mancl began learning about sustainable agriculture nearly two years ago through a College Colloquium Student Research Grant that enabled her to live and work on a farm in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. There, she tended chickens, picked gooseberries, and slept in a tent for eight weeks.

Her final grant report synthesized her personal experiences with poet Walt Whitman’s views on agriculture. Whitman firmly believed people lead more fulfilling lives by working with the earth — and Mancl agrees.

“For the first time in my life, my relationship with nature had a purpose,” she says about her internship. “I wasn’t just an appreciative observer, I was a participant — in nature and in a community.”

Mancl furthered her education last summer by picking blueberries and managing blueberry pickers at Minto Island Growers, an organic vegetable cooperative farm in Salem.

This coming summer, she will work at 21 Acres, a farming cooperative in Woodinville, Washington, that promotes environmental stewardship, sustainable agriculture and the benefits of growing and eating fresh, organic, local produce and farm products. During her internship, Mancl hopes to participate in the cooperative’s community outreach efforts.

“I don’t have a desire to become a farmer, but I appreciate the work they do,” says Mancl, who plans to earn a graduate degree in food systems or agronomy. “Sustainable food systems are a part of their lives, and that’s so inspirational for me.”

Personal Growth 

Impressed by Mancl’s tenacity, biology professor Briana Lindh is confident Mancl will achieve whatever goals she sets.

“Olivia’s determination has allowed her to succeed at so many things simultaneously,” she says. “She has a backbone of steel.”

Mancl says she’s grateful for the continued support from her coaches, professors and teammates, who’ve each played a role in her personal growth. They are a big part of why she’s treasured her time at Willamette.

“I really value the connections I’ve made here,” she says. “My team became my immediate family, and I’ve been blown away by how the professors care about their students as individuals. Sometimes, I take this for granted.”