San Antonio – College athletes are a special breed, balancing classes, their social life and, of course, their selected sport.

But there’s a college athlete at St. Mary’s that’s a breed all to her own, training to become a Rattler first.

That would be St. Mary’s cross country runner Jessica Waninger, a triathlete who is on the fast track – literally – to becoming the first-known Rattler to represent the school on the national stage in a triathlon.

And while her track is fast, it’s anything but easy.

“I usually swim between 10,000 to 15,000 yards a week, which is close to 10 miles,” Waninger says, “and I bike around 150-170 miles a week. I then run between 35-50 miles a week, and I do strength training twice a week, too.”

That is the 20 hour-per-week training schedule of Waninger, whose extensive athletic ability and work ethic was tremendously felt on the Rattlers’ cross country team this past season, when in her first year as a Rattler she led St. Mary’s to a 19th-place finish at regionals in its first regional appearance since 2006.

Now, her training has taken her to the 2012 USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championship, where Waninger will represent St. Mary’s this Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Waninger was welcomed to the St. Mary’s cross country team with two first-place finishes in regular-season meets and was twice named the Heartland Conference Runner of the Week. While usually athletes are summed up with their performance within their season, Waninger is a few paces ahead by also excelling during the so-called offseason.

The junior from Santa Claus, Ind., transferred from the University of Texas-Tyler, where she left her mark with numerous school records and awards.

And at St. Mary’s, she has connected with Rattler alum Shirley Gonzalez, a triathlete herself who has proven an inspirational force for Waninger.

“Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to (do all this),” Waninger says.

Cooling down and stretching in front of the St. Mary’s University Center before hopping in car to drive to the national championship, Waninger reflected on finding success in her first year as a St. Mary’s athlete despite all that could weigh her down.

“It’s definitely hard because I train a lot,” says Waninger of her part-time, 20 hours-per-week training schedule, “so it gets to be a lot with school because I’m taking 18 hours right now, too. It’s a tough balance because I try to work, too (at a triathlon shop) – and be a wife.”

To go along with her already extensive résumé, the new, fresh face of the Rattlers’ cross-country team is also a newlywed. Waninger married this past January, finding “the one” to fit right into her ambitious and motivated schedule.

“He’s a triathlete too; he’s actually a professional,” says Waninger of her husband, Mark, who will also be competing along with her in this weekend’s national championship. “He got his professional card last year. We train together. It’s a lot of fun.”

While she’s proud to now represent the Rattlers, Waninger eyes becoming a professional triathlete herself. And she knows her own trek to becoming a pro.

“There are certain sanctioned races by USA Triathlon, so there has to be a certain prize purse in order to qualify,” she said. “And they give you certain slots you have to finish in. Mark qualified as top-3 male overall at a sanctioned race, so you qualify that way in order to get your professional license. I definitely want to pursue a professional triathlon career. It takes a lot of time and commitment.”

Luckily for the Rattlers, Waninger still has another year left to compete on the cross-country team, where her first season has given her a respectable shot at the national championship.

“It’s pretty cool to bring the whole sport of triathlon to St. Mary’s,” says Waninger, who placed first in her first career meet as a Rattler and qualified for the national event by placing second at a recent regional race. “And it’s definitely cool to being able to represent St. Mary’s. Arlynda (Flores), the cross country coach, has just been amazing in working with me and allowing me to pursue this and still run, because my passion was first running. During the season I put all of my effort into that. Arlynda’s just been great in helping me and supporting me.”

Regardless of the outcome of the national championship, Waninger is already making history at St. Mary’s and will doubtlessly excel as a St. Mary’s alum.

Waninger will compete in the Collegiate National Championship on Saturday. The horn blows at 7:30 a.m. Fans can visit for more information.

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