An email, two Skype conversations and a handful of earnest conversations shrunk the ocean that separated a teen-aged Heloise Duffie de Tassigny and Flagler College.
Two years ago, Duffie de Tassigny became the first international runner Brian Beil recruited in his 12 years as a collegiate cross country coach. Now, a junior, she has matured from being a speedy middle-distance runner to one of the Saints’ best cross country runners.
On Saturday, Duffie de Tassigny finished second at the 5K Gene Mullin Invitational. Her time of 18 minutes, 46.13 seconds gave her the fastest time of any collegiate athlete in the 57-person field. Beth Donnelly, an exceptional high school cross country runner from Brentwood, Tennessee, won the race in 18:32.45.
“We left it a little too late,” Beil said. “Had she decided to make her move earlier, I think she would have caught the girl and won it. I’m not concerned about her fitness; she is in great shape and ready to roll. I’m only concerned about confidence and health. As long as her health doesn’t shake her confidence, I like her chances.”
Last weekend’s race was Flagler’s third of the season, but the last one that will feature maximum effort before the Peach Belt Conference championships Oct. 21 in Columbus, Georgia.
Flagler will head to Melbourne on Thursday to compete against Florida Tech, Embry-Riddle and Rollins. Hurricane Irma wiped out an early-season competition in Jacksonville and Beil is using Thursday’s meet to ensure the Saints have enough races in the regular season to be eligible for the postseason.
Duffie de Tassigny grew up in Angers, France, playing tennis and running middle distance events for her high school, Lycee Saint-Martin. She aspired to come to the United States and found Flagler because of its location in downtown St. Augustine.
“I was looking at schools in the U.S. in general, in the entire country,” Duffie de Tassigny said last week. “I could have ended up in Hawaii. I was looking up the East Coast because it’s closer to France. I wanted good weather because I don’t like to run in the cold, so I wanted to run in the South. I looked up Flagler and the times were very similar to what I could run. And it’s by the beach. I got along well with Coach Beil, so I said ‘Let’s go.’”
Once arriving at Flagler in 2015, she shelved her one-handed backhand tennis stroke to focus on running because she believed she could develop more as an athlete in that sport.
Her parents, Louis and Blandine, have yet to make the 4,300-mile trip from Western France to Florida’s East Coast, but her younger sister, Clotilde, did visit St. Augustine last year.
Though she has been running since she was 12 years old, Duffie de Tassigny’s first collegiate cross country season was an adjustment. Nonetheless, she still ran 19:23 at an early-season 5K and finished 38th at the 6,000-meter Peach Belt Conference championships with a time of 24:49.1 — the fastest time posted by a freshman at the meet.
“In cross country, it can be a long race,” Duffie de Tassigny said. “The middle part is kind of slow. In the 800, or the mile, it’s fast and you’re pushing the body to its limit.”
The 5-foot-8 Duffie de Tassigny has grown from a middle-distance runner who can run 5,000 or 6,000 meters to a cross country runner who has maintained her middle-distance speed.
Beil said his first international pupil is the type of runner the field doesn’t want to see late in the race.
“The only real question was how she would transition from (an) 800 runner,” Beil said. “She hadn’t run cross country in a number of years. As she got to high school age, she was running track and doing tennis. … Now, she is in a place where she has the strength she didn’t have her freshman year.”
The strength allows Duffie de Tassigny to comfortably run a mile at a 6:20 pace. In most races, the 20-year-old likes to remain within striking distance of the lead pack and make her move toward the end.
“At conference, I know I have to be up front with those girls,” Duffie de Tassigny said. “It’s about positioning myself in the race and hanging out.”
Duffie de Tassigny has qualified for the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional in each of the last two years. As a freshman she was 51st with a time of 25:14 in the 6K race. Last year, she ran a personal-best 22:30.5 at the regional.
If Duffie de Tassigny qualifies for regionals again, Nov. 4 will be a busy day for her. The gun will go off in the Southeast Regional in the morning and, at noon, her hometown soccer club, Angers SCO, will host her favorite club, Paris Saint-Germain, in a Ligue 1 match.
Qualifying for the Southeast Regional would be ideal, but Duffie de Tassigny has her sights set on the Peach Belt championships and ensuring her confidence remains in a place where she can excel on the course.
“She can run with anyone in our conference,” Beil said. “It’s the same situation (former Flagler All-American) Cory Mundy was in. Two years in a row, he came in where he could run with anyone in the conference. One year he won it. One year he didn’t. I believe Heloise and Lauren Penalka can run with anyone in the field. That’s all you can ask going in, have a chance.”