Once an aspiring tennis pro, HPU's Polina Babkina may end up an Olympian in another sport

Polina Babkina Courtesy HPU Sports Information

HONOLULU - Once an aspiring tennis pro, Hawai‘i Pacific's Polina Babkina may end up as an Olympian in another sport.

After finishing her cross country career at HPU with All-PacWest First Team and All-West Region honors, Babkina has turned her energy to long-distance running.

If early returns are any indication, Babkina could someday be an elite marathon runner.

Babkina burst onto the marathon scene on Dec. 9 when she was the first local woman to finish and the 12th woman overall at the Honolulu Marathon.

She ran the 26.2 miles, the longest race of her life, in three hours and three minutes to place 89th out of 24,413 participants.

“It was a great experience,” Babkina said. “The Honolulu Marathon is such a big event, I just couldn't miss it.”

Despite not having much time to train for the race, Babkina was optimistic.

"My mentality was that I expected it to go well. Now I am so motivated (for the next one)."

It almost never happened; Babkina originally came to the United States from Sochi, Russia, to play tennis at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

After one semester at UNC-Pembroke, fate stepped in. Babkina transferred to the University of West Alabama, and it was there that her tennis coach noticed that she outran everyone in running drills, including the guys on the men's tennis team. He encouraged her to work out with the cross country team.

Polina Babkina Polina just missed All-South Region status in 2009 finishing 27th in the regional meet for UWA. By 2010, she set the West Alabama program record at the NCAA II South Regional, coming in 12th place.

In 2011, she broke her own record (22:49) and placed seventh in the NCAA II South Regional after winning the Gulf South Conference Championship.

With her bachelor's degree in hand and a season of eligibility remaining, Babkina enrolled at HPU to begin work on her M.A. in communication.

She made an immediate impact on the PacWest and the West Region, finishing second at the PacWest Championship and capturing All-Region honors after taking 16th (22:15) at the West Regional.

Jorge Medina, HPU's cross country coach, was an assistant at West Alabama when Babkina showed up on campus.

“From the first day we knew she would excel. It came very natural to her. I told her she would have a successful career at the first practice. She exceeded all expectations that first year and the upcoming years. We had a conversation then where I told her that running marathons would be her future event.”

Obviously the training is much different for a 26-mile race versus a 5K or 6K. Her longest training runs as a cross country runner were 10 miles; now she runs 16 miles three times a week. Overall, she has gone from 55 miles a week to 80-90.

Medina continues to coach Babkina as she turns to the distance game. Her longtime coach thinks she can be special.

“With her work ethic, dedication and love for the sport, she can make a push to make the Olympic Trials in the years to come. She still has a lot of training to do, but I wouldn't be surprised to see her on an Olympic team for the U.S. or Russia. She has the ability to run a 2:30 or better marathon. It will take time, but she is determined to do what it takes to get there.”

Babkina has fallen for the long-distance sport.

“I love the sport so much; I want to be an elite runner. It is such motivation to do better when I see their times (the women that beat her in the Honolulu Marathon). My goal is to make the Olympic Trials someday.”

When asked which country she would like to run for she flashed a big smile and said “I can't answer that question yet.”

Babkina next will race in the Great Aloha Run as she prepares for the San Francisco Marathon in June.

Not a bad start for a woman who just picked up running four years ago. Four years from now, the proverbial sky is the limit.