Olivia Esbenshade’s introduction to the Elizabethtown Bears varsity cross country team was an accident.
She previously played field hockey or soccer and had no intention to start running cross country or track.
“When I started I planned on switching [to another sport] after a year. I was looking for the JV team, but walked into a varsity practice. It was really bad. I had to walk,” Esbenshade said.
After becoming engrained in the program, Esbenshade began to blossom as a runner. She was a four-time letter winner, three-time state qualifier and left Elizabethtown owning three school records.
She started to look at colleges and universities that might be a match for her and attending a Christian college was at the top of her list.
“My older sister had gone to Cedarville. I thought about going to Liberty. I wasn’t sure about going to a D-I school because I had a lot of injuries. I didn’t do a lot of running and was unsure of how I would do in college,” Esbenshade said.
Cedarville, roughly the mid-point between Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, is a university attended by roughly 3,700 undergraduate students. Their athletic programs have competed in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference at the DII level since 2012.
The Yellow Jackets’ women’s cross country has been coached by Jeff Bolender since 2001. He said that Esbenshade had expressed interest in attending Cedarville and he noticed the amount of success that she achieved.
“We had one or two meetings with her on campus and saw that she had a lot of potential. She had been through some injuries, but there were enough high marks there to really excel if she could get into a consistent training pattern,” Bolender said.
Those injuries, however, did not disappear when she got to Cedarville. Esbenshade competed in only two meets her freshman year. She finished 8th in the G-Mac Championship with a time of 24:06 in the 6K. She also finished 36th out of 276 runners at the Gettysburg College Invitational.
“She had a lot of injuries her first year. When she did run, there were glimpses [of her potential]. For two-and-a-half years we kept her training volume low. She was cross training and riding a bike because she wasn’t able to run a lot,” Bolender said.
Esbenshade said that she had to focus on a training program that worked for her. While some of her teammates were running 60 miles per week, she was running 20 miles and had to supplement the other areas.
“I had to build super slowly and be more patient with the process. Every breakthrough I had, no matter how minor, was something I had to get excited for. Senior year was a little bit better. I got used to it eventually,” Esbenshade said.
Her senior season culminated with a fifth consecutive G-Mac Championship for Cedarville. Esbenshade took the top spot in the 6K with a time of 22:52.
Bolender was ecstatic for Esbenshade because he knew the injuries that she continued to battle through, rather than allowing them to end her career.
“I couldn’t be more happy or excited for her. She persevered through so much. I think she came to grips with the fact that you have to keep persevering to reach your goals. That you really can accomplish these things. It’s not just a whim or a dream, but it’s really attainable,” Bolender said.
Esbenshade, a Dean’s List nursing student at Cedarville, has since graduated from the university and is a nurse at Hershey Medical Center. Her younger brother, Conrad, runs cross country for the Cedarville men’s team. Esbenshade said that she is still in contact with some of her teachers from Elizabethtown.
They’ll occasionally email to see how each other are doing and that is something that she cherishes.
“The coaches that I had at E-Town were super encouraging. They’d ask me how my running was going even after I graduated. The community was really supportive and I always enjoy coming back to E-Town to run at the track,” Esbenshade said.