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How does a person get from refusing to run cross country in middle school because “it was too boring” to captain of a Division 1, nationally ranked running team? Besides ranked a D1 Collegiate All-American?

While Kayla Windemuller ’18 was a student at Holland Christian Middle School, she refused to run cross country, instead playing basketball since it was more interesting. Fast forward almost 10 years, and Kayla’s not only winning Division 1 national championships, she’s been elected captain of the University of Michigan’s nationally ranked running team. And desires to use her position there to serve others and the Lord.

“I never thought I would be captain,” she said. “I’m not usually a leader—I like to sit back, and follow, and we always had great captains before.”

But in the vacuum left after multiple team leaders graduated, and with a desire to keep traditions alive and serve her teammates, Kayla was voted team captain in this her first year of her masters program at University of Michigan. Being sidelined most of her freshman and sophomore years through COVID and injuries made her eligible to run two years into her masters program as well.

“The first two years of school were brutal—probably some of the hardest years of my life. I never thought I’d get to be successful,” Kayla reflected. But “Injuries force you to learn a lot about yourself, how you’re going to handle trials.”

Kayla started out at Baylor immediately after high school, thinking the smaller private, Christian school would be a better fit than her other option, University of Michigan. Instead she ended up homesick living so far from home, injured most of the season, and longing to be closer to her family, her main system of support. So after a freshman spring semester of COVID, she transferred her sophomore year to the University of Michigan, closer to home and her support base. But it still wasn’t easy.

“It was a big adjustment, and I was basically a freshman all over again. I stayed in the dorms—and truly hated it,” she said. “Academics were so different coming from Baylor! I had to relearn how to study, my grades were not good at all! I really struggled.”

Academics took a great deal of work at first, while she figured out how to navigate her classes. “I had never gotten bad grades before, so for me to work hard and still get bad grades was new,” she said. “I improved exponentially in college! Plus I found more purpose in what I was doing.”

Along the way, Kayla had to learn to listen to people around her, people like her mother: “I loved the sports that you got to run and made your body hurt—I love the feeling of being sore,” she laughed. “I hated [cross country] in middle school because it wasn’t serious enough for me. We were playing Capture the Flag, and I’d rather just run on my own.”

It was her mom who convinced her that she should try running as a freshman at Holland Christian High School. And “the team was super fun, I left feeling good and sore, and looking back the coaches did a good job,” Kayla said. She ended up the only HCHS female to make it to cross country state finals her freshman year, running the 5K in high 19 minutes.

Kayla basically skipped the 18-minute 5K completely, and came back her sophomore year running 17-minute 5Ks, climbing to the top of the HCHS cross country and track record boards. Her name is still number one on the cross country leaderboard and both the 1600 and 3200 meter runs, besides the 1600 and 3200 meter relays.

But Kayla had to learn to listen to her coaches as well, HCHS cross country and track coaches who she admits she gave some attitude. “I was difficult to work with—I wanted to run and run and they wouldn’t let me. They were smart and I was not! I give a ton of my success back to them because of all they did for me!”

“Obviously I’m not like that now—I’ve grown a lot, I’ve grown up as a Christian,” Kayla added. “Going to Michigan I was a minority and still am a minority [as a Christian], but I had my faith to lean on and something more to believe in than running.”

But she also quickly grew close to her teammates at Michigan: “I prayed really hard for a good group of friends, and God was so gracious in that,” she said. “I was able to find best friends, and really clicked with a lot of girls.”

A whole lot of other learning happened along the way as well—learning about herself and her body, especially when she was injured so much during her freshman and sophomore years. “It was a lot of learning and growing and listening to my body, and taking more off-days, when my younger self would never have done that,” she explained. “I worked on maintaining my health, not comparing myself to others, and learning to focus. I loved running so much, and didn’t want that to be taken away.”

At Michigan Kayla’s specialty became the steeplechase—a “really cool race,” she said, adding that it’s been great to be “thrown in the mix with top-level athletes in the country.”

But she was also recognizing that even though these elite runners are very talented and the top in the nation, there were still often “a lot of toxic traits,” like unhealthy perceptions of food and body.

After toying with a variety of health majors, starting with nutrition, switching to exercise science and other health related fields, Kayla finally decided she did indeed want to major in nutrition, and is currently in year one of her masters in dietetics, the science of how food and nutrition affect human health. She’s not exactly sure what she will do with it yet—she imagines working in a NICU with preemie babies, or maybe working with high school athletes with eating disorders.

Kayla is enjoying her role as captain, which means taking care of lots of logistics like transportation to meets, collecting forms, leading warm up drills for the 34 woman team before they head out on their 55-65 miles each week. But she also continues to learn to listen, to communicate between the coaches and the athletes as the middleman. And while taking the work seriously, she is also having fun and just enjoying being with the team.

“Competing against other people is just fun, plus cross country has the team aspect,” she said. “Number 1 is just as important as #7 and the team supporting you back home. It’s so much fun to have a ton of girls to work out with!”

More importantly Kayla continues to grow in her faith: “Knowing I’m a daughter of Christ takes the pressure off of running, where people ask so much of you. All I can do is through God’s strength,” she added. “That’s one of the reasons I’m supposed to be here—to live out my faith as best as I can. It’s something I wasn’t always that confident in, but Michigan is a place that really needs Jesus. It’s cool I get to live out my faith here and be supported by my coaches and teammates.”