By Brittany Johnson
Durango High School cross country coach Ron Keller didn’t mince words when he warned Elva Martinez of the challenges of collegiate athletics. Although he encouraged her to pursue distance running at the next level, he also told her not to expect greatness and first-place finishes right away.
Sure enough, as the self-proclaimed “small-town girl” began her freshman year in 1991 as a student-athlete at Western State in Gunnison, Colo., Martinez found herself in the exact position no competitive runner wants to be in: the back of the pack.
Since then, more than a few things have changed for the woman who was recently named to Division II’s 40th Anniversary Tribute Team.
After marrying another Western State cross country alum, Elva Martinez became Elva Dryer. Western State, then a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), joined the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) of NCAA Division II before Dryer’s sophomore campaign. And thanks to her perseverance and strong work ethic, Dryer, who ran both cross country and track for the Mountaineers, not only improved as a runner, but she became the leader of the pack.
Seven NCAA Division II National Championships, 16 All-America titles and two Olympic appearances later, Dryer credits her college cross country coach, Duane Vandenbusche, with giving her the drive to continue when quitting was the easiest option.
“Coach Vandenbusche was very encouraging and just kept telling me to hang in there,” Dryer said. “He said that if I was just patient and continued to do the work, I would make progress.”
Vandenbusche was right.
Dryer improved her times with each cross country competition of her freshman season. She was one of Western State’s top runners by season’s end, earning an 11th-place finish at the 1990 NAIA nationals and helping the Mountaineers win their first women’s national championship in any sport.
According to Dryer, this early exposure to success motivated her to become a better runner.
“It’s always scary the first time when you’re trying to do something, but then you achieve it and it lights the fire,” she said. “I had a little taste of success early, and that just kind of kept me going and striving for more, whether it was to win titles or just improve my times.”
During track season of her freshman year, Dryer was injured and forced to sit out the following school year. When she returned to Western State in the fall of 1992, she was even more focused and committed to developing herself as a runner and helping her team achieve its goals.
“I believe my mindset is what changed,” she remembered. “As I experienced firsthand the results of hard work, I believed more was possible. And after that, my running took a life of its own. As I took advantage of opportunities, it created other opportunities and I just ran with it.”
And run with it she did.
Over the next four years, Dryer earned two NCAA DII cross country titles (1993 and 1994) and five national outdoor track and field titles for the Mountaineers. At the 3,000-meter distance, Dryer won four consecutive outdoor national championships, joining a small list of student-athletes who have swept an event over all four years of eligibility. In 1996, she added the 1,500-meter title to her extensive list of accomplishments.
Although juggling her classes, homework, practices and meets proved to be a challenge (Dryer remembers taking quick naps whenever possible), she eventually struck a balance that allowed her to excel in the classroom, as well as on the track. In May of 1996, she graduated with a degree in business administration and a minor in psychology.
One month after graduation, Dryer participated in the 1996 Olympic Trials, placing eighth in the 5,000-meter event. Although she did not make the Olympic team, she used the experience as motivation and signed a contract with Nike that allowed her to focus exclusively on her running. In 2000, she placed third at the Olympic trials, earning her a coveted spot on her first Olympic team.
“I first dreamed of being an Olympian when I watched the ’92 Olympic Games on TV and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I could be an Olympian someday,’” she said. “But it was really just a pipe dream until you get close and think, ‘Wow, I might actually be able to make this happen.’ Then, you do and it’s a bit surreal.”
At the Sydney Games, she competed as a semifinalist in the 5,000-meter race. Four years later in Athens, she finished 19th in the 10,000-meter finals, the best American finish in the event.
Dryer continued to run professionally until 2008 when she decided to return to the place where her love affair with running began. Now, she spends most of her time working as the program coordinator for the university center at Western State and manager of the Aspinall-Wilson Conference Center. According to Dryer, the return to her beloved alma mater was both fitting and fulfilling.
“I was always very proud of where I went to school, and the opportunity to actually be part of the driving force is awesome,” she said.
As it did before with running, Dryer’s stint at Western State this time around has introduced her to the next great joy of her life: motherhood. Her daughter, Marina, turns 3 in November.
Between her daughter and a full-time job, Dryer is busy these days, but that hasn’t stopped her from running. In fact, the 42-year-old often brings Marina along in the baby jogger as she trains for her next big challenge: the Twin Cities USA Masters Marathon Championships in October.
As a direct result of her hard work, Dryer has been inducted into the RMAC Hall of Fame, the Colorado Sportsman Hall of Fame, the National Cross Country Hall of Fame and the Division II Track and Field Hall of Fame, among others.
Surrounded by students at Western State on a daily basis, it’s easy for Dryer to reflect on her time as a student-athlete — a rewarding experience that she says prepared her for life after her running career.
“The lessons that I learned through my experience as a student-athlete, I draw from those on a daily basis,” she said. “The skill set that you learn of setting goals, the feeling you get from accomplishing goals and persevering, discipline, communication, the value of being part of a team…all of those things I carried with me.
“Looking back on it now, I’m like, ‘Gosh, I was so lucky to get to do all those things as a student-athlete and take advantage of those opportunities.’ They really do lay a foundation for life.”