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‘She’s always done it her way’

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Moments after the Carlisle girls track and field team wraps up practice on a hot May day, senior Ainsley Erzen grabs her backpack, water bottle and Pedialyte and begins a short walk to the other side of the school’s track.

“Bye, guys,” Erzen says to her teammates.

There, on the other side, out on the field, are her teammates on the Carlisle soccer team. They’ve already started stretching for practice, the second one of the day for Erzen, who has to put on her cleats and shin guards first.

“I’m really lucky with the coaching staff that we have in terms of flexibility or their understanding with my schedule,” Erzen said.

Carlisle senior Ainsley Erzen has become a star at soccer and track during the same seasons.Carlisle senior Ainsley Erzen has become a star at soccer and track during the same seasons.

It’s unusual for a multi-sport athlete to do two sports — soccer and track — at the same time. Even more so: She’s starring.

“We said, ‘Dream and see where it takes you,’” her father, Todd, said.

Ainsley Erzen, a state champion runner and phenom soccer player, has become one of Iowa’s most accomplished athletes and, earlier this spring, one of its most outspoken.

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In February, a guest essay by Erzen published in the Des Moines Register outlined her view that the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union should protect and preserve female sports by barring transgender girls from competition. On March 3, she was among the athletes who appeared with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds as she signed a law that bans transgender girls and women from playing in female sports in Iowa, further inserting Erzen into the discussion of a divisive issue in Iowa and nationally.

In sports, Erzen had long heard she couldn’t play two sports at the same time. Now she’s done it. And she’ll do it again in college when she runs track and plays soccer at Arkansas.

“She’s always done it her way,” said Ben Tilus, her performance coach.

Carlisle senior Ainsley Erzen practices baton handoffs during track practice at the high school Wednesday, May 11 in Carlisle. Erzen is one of the best athletes in the state, solidifying herself as one of the top track runners and top soccer players. She'll play both at Arkansas.

Carlisle senior Ainsley Erzen practices baton handoffs during track practice at the high school Wednesday, May 11 in Carlisle. Erzen is one of the best athletes in the state, solidifying herself as one of the top track runners and top soccer players. She’ll play both at Arkansas.

Erzen’s time trial in seventh grade jumpstarts a remarkable running career

Tilus, the owner and head performance coach at XLR8 Performance Lab in Ankeny, saw superstar potential in Erzen when she was in seventh grade.

He was already working as the girls cross country and track coach at Carlisle and had heard about Erzen’s athletic abilities. He encouraged her to come out for a cross country time trial at the high school.

Erzen was a middle school soccer star then. She didn’t have much interest in running. But Tilus convinced her to come out for the mile-long race, which included boys and girls in seventh and eighth grade.

Erzen stole the show. During the third lap of the four-lap race, she distanced herself from the competition like a veteran. Impressed, Tilus still remembers her scorching time: 5 minutes and 20 seconds. Erzen beat every girl and finished second overall. The only person to beat her was an eighth-grade boy.

“I’m like, ‘There is something ferocious and tenacious about this kid if she’s willing to make a move at the point where everyone’s normally (running) their slowest lap,'” Tilus recalled thinking.

Tilus ran over to Erzen’s parents, who were celebrating the win, and introduced himself. A day or so later, he showed up at their house to convince Erzen to start competing in running. He laid out a list of things he thought she could eventually accomplish.

State record holder.

National champion.

Tilus thought it was all possible for Erzen, who had never run competitively before.

“It definitely kind of showed me early on the potential that I had and the potential that he saw in me even though I couldn’t really see it in myself,” Erzen said.

She had one request, though: She wanted to keep playing soccer.

She had been playing since she was 5 and was in love with the sport. Tilus agreed and quickly got her involved with any big meet he could throughout the nation.

Erzen’s career was about to progress just as Tilus envisioned.

Carlisle senior Ainsley Erzen balances soccer and track seasons during the spring. She's become a star in both sports and will play them both at Arkansas.

Carlisle senior Ainsley Erzen balances soccer and track seasons during the spring. She’s become a star in both sports and will play them both at Arkansas.

Charting a successful career in soccer and track

Corbin Stone has a story for anyone that doubts whether Erzen can handle playing two sports.

It came during a soccer tournament last summer. Erzen, who was competing in St. Louis, was drawing two, sometimes three defenders. No one could stop her. Stone says Erzen continued taking over the game and impressed college coaches along the way.

A week later, Erzen competed at the Outdoor Nationals at Haywood Field in Eugene, Oregon. Against the nation’s best high school runners, Erzen won the 800 meters with a time of 2:06.52, the top time ever run by an Iowa high school girl.

“I don’t know a lot of athletes that could do that in one sport, let alone two,” said Stone, who has worked with Erzen as the founder of Next Level Soccer, a training, educational and development program.

That’s what Stone explained to the soccer coaches across the country who were recruiting Erzen. Having success in multiple sports isn’t unheard of in high school. But what made Erzen’s story intriguing was that she was doing it at the same time. In the fall, she’d compete in cross country and on her club soccer team. In the spring, she’d play high school soccer and run track.

And she’s found success in all the sports. She’s won four Drake Relays titles and two state titles in track. Erzen has also twice finished third in the state cross country meet. During her junior season, she tallied 19 goals for Carlisle, and through the team’s first 11 games this season, she has 22. Later this week, she can add to her state track resume.

“She always said at an early age … ‘It would kill me to give up one of them,”’ Todd Erzen said of his daughter’s two sports.

Ainsley Erzen said some coaches in the past told her to focus on one sport. If she’s talented now, imagine what she could do if she specialized in one, they’d say.

But Erzen has ignored the pleas.

It’s resulted in long days, especially in the spring. Erzen routinely goes through two practices a day and then finds time at home to do schoolwork to maintain her 4.0 GPA. She’ll sometimes have to miss a meet, soccer game or practice if the schedules conflict. Erzen, her parents and coaches mapped out a schedule to strategically pick dates to miss where she’ll not be needed as much.

It has worked for everyone so far. Carlisle started the season with an 11-2 mark in soccer and has enjoyed a strong track season entering state. Erzen believes playing both sports gives her an advantage, keeping her sharp, in top shape and durable.

Tilus says Erzen also has a gifted energy system. His company, which does blood work, discovered that Erzen produces high aerobic and anaerobic levels, which gives her an elevated amount of energy for a sprinter and an elevated amount for a distance runner. Then there’s her work ethic.

“I think she, as an athlete,” Stone said, “has a certain innate, drive, competitiveness and edge to her that takes her far in both endeavors.”

Carlisle senior Ainsley Erzen has become one of the state's most unique athletes as a soccer and track star.

Carlisle senior Ainsley Erzen has become one of the state’s most unique athletes as a soccer and track star.

Her advocacy met pushback, but ‘I would do it again’

Many conservatives believe it’s unfair to allow transgender athletes who were assigned as male at birth to compete against cisgender girls and women.

The law Reynolds signed in March, House File 2416, made Iowa one of 11 states at the time that banned transgender women and girls from competing in female sports at Iowa schools, colleges and universities.

“There were a lot of girls that came to the Capitol with me to push for the bill and support me and the governor,” Erzen said. “But there were also definitely a lot of people that hated us for it and definitely were very loud about it.”

Iowa has yet to have high-profile cases of transgender athletes competing as females, and several states have said they have found little to no evidence of transgender athletes playing on girls teams.

Iowa and national LGBTQ advocacy groups condemned the Iowa bill as overtly political and said “it would further isolate transgender youth in Iowa.”

“This bill is not about fairness in sports, nor has it even been,” Sam Ames, director for advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, said in a statement at the time of the bill’s signing.

Erzen said this week that she and others pursued their advocacy to protect the future of sports for girls and women.

“It tested our faith a lot,” she said. “But I think it made us stronger in the end, and I would do it again in a heartbeat for the outcome we got.”

Erzen has big goals for her future

After high school, Erzen will go to Arkansas and continue competing in soccer and track. Erzen was such a coveted runner that many schools, including Iowa, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Oregon, were willing to let her do both sports.

Erzen said she made it clear to college coaches that she wanted to continue pursuing both. Arkansas, which has successful track and soccer programs, turned out to be the perfect fit. Erzen said she felt like the coaching staffs from both teams wanted her to be a part of their programs and were willing to work with her.

Erzen also liked the idea of being out of her comfort zone.

“I think Arkansas honestly scared me the most,” she said. “They are really intense and they’re just amazing at everything they do. I know that I’m going to go there and I’m going to have a million girls that are better than me. I think that’s just part of the fun, and it’s going to make me a lot better, so I’m really excited.”

She also has her sights set on one day running in the Olympics.

As Erzen showed last summer, that may be possible.

“She is as good as has ever come through Iowa,” Tilus said.

Tommy Birch, the Register’s sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He’s the 2018 and 2020 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at [email protected] or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Ainsley Erzen is one of Iowa’s most dominant, outspoken athletes



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