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Norwin graduate earns top women's sports honor at Penn

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Leslie Kovach runs for the University of Pennsylvania at the Iona Meet of Champions Sept. 17, 2011, in New York.

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After more than a year and a half of ongoing stress fractures, Leslie Kovach believed she was ready for the final outdoor track season of her University of Pennsylvania career.

A femoral stress fracture in her left leg in mid-March changed those plans.

The stress fracture effectively ended the competition career for the 2009 Norwin graduate, who earned All-American status as a distance runner during her sophomore season at Penn. But she still maintained a presence with the team, helping to mold the younger runners.

“It's a strange position to be in,” Kovach said. “I'd never been sidelined by injury before I came to college at all. Being limited that way has been humbling and just a difficult pill to swallow. You have to accept that you're not invincible. It's difficult to not be out there and have a measurable way to contribute, but I'm still happy to have at least been around and feel involved.”

Though the injury problems kept Kovach from competition during much of her final two seasons, the university's athletic department recently recognized her impact with the Association of Alumnae Fathers' Award.

The award, voted on by Penn coaches, recognizes a senior female athlete who shows “outstanding athletic, academic and leadership qualities,” according to the athletic department's website. It's the top award given to a female student-athlete at the university.

“I was surprised a little bit and just really taken aback by it,” said Kovach, a psychology major at Penn.

At Norwin, Kovach helped lead the girls track and field team to four consecutive WPIAL team titles from 2006-09. She also took home a gold medal in the 3,200 meters at the PIAA individual championships during her senior season.

The success continued at Penn, where she could run the 3,000-, 5,000- or 10,000-meter races. She set school records in the indoor and outdoor 5,000 meters and in the outdoor 10,000 meters.

“You don't often get an athlete of that sort of stature,” said Tony Tenisici, the Penn women's track and field coach, who nominated Kovach for the award. “She rewrote all of our record books in both 5,000 and 10,000 (meters), and some of those records had stood for over 20 years. So it just goes to show you — you get an athlete like her once a decade.”

During her sophomore season, Kovach advanced to the NCAA Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, where she placed 18th in the 5,000 meters with a time of 16 minutes, 16.10 seconds. By advancing to the meet, Kovach earned All-American status, becoming the second women's outdoor All-American in school history.

“That meet was overwhelming, and I definitely was not prepared for it,” Kovach said. “It was an experience that was very interesting. It was eye-opening, but I was a little bit naive and not really prepared for what I got myself into.”

Earlier during her sophomore season, Kovach ran the outdoor 5,000 meters in 16:11.59 at the Penn Relays, breaking the school record by nearly nine seconds.

Kovach said focusing on the right things off the track in turn helped her on it during college.

“You're responsible for yourself outside of track,” she said. “You're responsible for how you manage your time with your schoolwork, how you fuel your body (and) how you accommodate all your needs outside of track practice. Being sure that you're taking care of all of your responsibilities requires you to have a steely resolve, just not being overcome by stress and being overwhelmed by silly things that could otherwise derail your motivation.”

Even with the injuries the past two seasons, Tenisici said Kovach was a leader by example for the team, which is made up of mostly underclassmen.

While Kovach called her career at Penn “bittersweet” because of the ups and downs, Tenisici said her impact on the program will extend beyond her four years.

“She put us on the national stage, and she gave us great visibility and credibility,” he said. “That's what she achieved. We just couldn't be happier that she gave us that, and we're extremely proud to have had her here at Penn.”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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