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Jillian Harris: a taste for all sports

Mills College junior Jillian Harris riding in the See Jane Run triathlon last September in Pleasanton, CA. The popular Bay Area race included a 400 yard swim, 11 mile bike ride and three mile run. (Courtesy of Jillian Harris)

Leave it to ultra-athlete Jillian Harris to find redeeming qualities in an In-N-Out cheeseburger.

“Technically what you need for recovery post-workouts, an In-N-Out cheeseburger has,” Harris said. “Plus the ingredients are fresh.”

And it doesn’t stop at a Double-Double.

The Mills junior occasionally goes on “fast food binges” with friends, hitting up three or four drive-thrus before taking the fried chicken, tacos and burgers back to the dorms and eating them in front of a TV.

“I’m gonna work it off so I can eat what I want,” Harris said, 5’5” with lean muscle. “Sometimes you just have to give your body what it needs.”

And Harris’ body needs a lot.

Currently on the crew team, the 21-year-old International Relations major has dabbled in more sports than people can name including swimming, volleyball, soccer and pole vaulting. Her number one passion is cycling, with two complete bikes, a bike she’s building and a unicycle to her name. She regularly bikes 30 to 70 miles around Berkeley, Moraga and Orinda.

In addition, Harris works at Performance Bicycle in Berkeley, selling and occasionally repairing bikes and accessories.

Harris’ first foray into sports was at age five with swimming lessons.

“I used to be terrified of the water,” Harris said. “I wouldn’t even put my head underwater in the tub.”

She quickly conquered her fear, joining swim team soon after in addition to trying out horseback riding and fencing.

Harris starting focusing more on volleyball in junior high until she tore her medial meniscus in her knee, leading to eventual reconstructive surgery.

“Sometimes (the scars are) really obvious in the winter and when I swim because they’ll get cold and turn purple,” Harris said, rolling up her jeans to reveal four small incision scars on her right knee (not to mention a toned calf muscle).

The doctors recommended a bicycle trainer and running as physical therapy to rehabilitate Harris’ lateral movement.

Harris quickly fell in love with running and biking. Her father Bill Harris took up cycling at the same time—“It was his midlife crisis”—in addition to her older sister and younger brother. Their garage soon began filling up in San Antonio, TX with various bikes and parts.

Despite her family’s support, cycling in San Antonio wasn’t always smooth sailing.

“It’s not very bike-friendly,” Harris said. “My dad’s been hit by a car. I’ve been side-swept, had (stuff) thrown at me, been honked at. It’s dominated by Ford F150s.”

Cyclist-friendly drivers weren’t the only difference Harris experienced when moving out West.

“They’re two completely different worlds,” Harris said. “I grew up in a conservative republican community. When I’d run I’d see anti-abortion signs left and right. Growing up I thought I was liberal but then I got out here and realized I’m more conservative.”

But whatever environment she’s in, Harris is fiercely competitive. She had to break off a relationship in high school with a fellow runner because they couldn’t stop comparing times.

“The competition was just terrible,” Harris said. “He was just so competitive and I’m just competitive by nature. The competition just got to be too much and it became annoying.”

Still, Harris enjoys some friendly rivalry.

Former Mills student Jules Cooch said that Harris regularly pushed her during cross country runs.

“We ran at similar paces for the Mills cross country team in 2008 and on race day we would push each other to go faster on the course,” Cooch said. “Running in pairs makes you both stronger and she is a great partner to have in practice and on race day.”

Harris’ team dedication goes beyond pushing her teammates to run faster, however.

Cross country member Safi Karmy-Jones was new to the team last year and unsure if anyone knew of her upcoming birthday during their first competition. Karmy-Jones told Harris in passing that she loved the extra-large grapes Costco sold.

“On the day of the race Jillian came up to me and handed me a wrapped box. When I opened it it contained a huge container of Costco grapes,” Karmy-Jones said. “That remains one of the best presents I’ve ever gotten for my birthday.”

But at the end of the day, Harris remains deeply committed to cycling.

“If I had my way I’d probably just drop out of school, I’d bike all the time and get my (license) in massage therapy,” Harris said, a massage aficionado with a massage table in her dorm room. “Anytime that I can be on a bike is bliss. I have a post-it on my wall that says bike equals sanity.”

But Harris is devoted to studying international relations; she’s also interested in homeland and international security, in addition to policy work within sustainable transportation.

What road is she going to pedal down?

“I know I don’t have to decide now,” Harris said.

So for now, Harris will just keep balancing homework, crew and cycling, preferably with a cheeseburger here or there.