It was the night before the 2014 Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) girls state cross-country meet in Wisconsin Rapids, and McFarland High School senior Anissa Hacker was worried about how she would fare in the race featuring the best runners in the state.
“When I told my mom I was scared, she asked me, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ ‘Uh, I die,’ I replied,” Hacker recalled. “Then she told me that I have to trust my heart and my teammates. I hadn’t died yet and the fate of everyone running their best race wasn’t on my shoulders alone. That’s why it’s a team.”
Hacker took off at the starting gun and worked her way through the pack. A few hundred yards from the finish line, she found herself in a dogfight with several other runners. Tenth place was on the line.
“In the intense last moments of the state meet, when I couldn’t feel my body, much less my legs anymore, I was uplifted by those around me who encouraged me to trust myself and my teammates, and to have courage,” Hacker said. “It was definitely an intense finish. There was a group of girls and everyone was sprinting for the finish.”
After fighting off her challengers, Hacker did finish in 10th position and earned a spot on the podium at the post-race ceremonies. The Spartans finished second overall in points, and Hacker was joined by her teammates in the celebration.
It was nearly six years ago when Hacker pulled off her amazing finish and events of that day still linger in her mind like any other monumental success she has achieved in sports and in life.
Hacker started in cross-country as a sophomore and was immediately entranced by the sage advice provided by coaches Bruce Fischer and his son, Scott, and Michelle Garvey and her son, Andrew. To this day, listening to those four names brings a smile to Hacker’s face.
“All these people created an enjoyable and team motivated practice. They all encouraged me in their own way – to trust myself, to grow as a person and a runner, and to find joy in the sport and in life,” Hacker said. “They strengthened my character in a way that allowed me to develop into a college athlete and the person I am today.”
Hacker was greatly encouraged by the words of Bruce Fischer, a legend when it came to coaching and teaching at McFarland. She still applies his knowledge today as a graduate of UW-Madison after participating on the Badgers cross-country team. Hacker works as a research assistant at the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center, associated with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UW-Madison.
“Bruce once said to me that he believes some people are afraid to fail and that fear keeps people from trying new things and achieving their goals. He asked me (and told me) to not be afraid of failure,” Hacker said. “’Don’t be afraid to fail’” were five little words that have carried me through life since, giving me the courage to keep running after injuries, to approach a professor after a lecture and to be confident in a job interview.
“The people I have met through sports and the lessons I have learned from sports have helped me through life and continue to encourage me to achieve personal goals.”
Fitting in at UW
After graduating from McFarland in 2015, Hacker enrolled at UW-Madison, where her parents, as well as several aunts and uncles, once attended. She said it was the best choice she could have made.
“The allure of UW-Madison pulled me in,” Hacker said. “There is such a wonderful and unique culture surrounding the school. I couldn’t pick anywhere else, and I’ve never regretted that choice.”
After that, she tried out for the UW women’s cross-country team as a walk-on. Her transition from high school to college athletics was more challenging than difficult.
“The workouts were harder, the races were faster, and the sport overall was more intense,” Hacker said. “I was suddenly involved with a group of people that respected the physical and mental challenges of the sport and were motivated to meet – what seemed to me at the time – impossible personal goals.”
Despite the difficult transition, Hacker said she had coaches and other athletes that welcomed her to the team and helped her get adjusted to college athletics.
Hacker’s fastest time on a 5,000-kilometer course was 20:44.8 on Sept. 8, 2017, at the Illinois State Invitational in Bloomington, Illinois, as the Badgers took fifth in overall points.
Eight days later, Hacker ran in the Wisconsin Mayflower Day Open against Northern Iowa and Illinois-Chicago in Madison and completed the 6,000-kilometer race in 25:36.8, another personal best.
UW defeated Illinois-Chicago and Northern Iowa to win the meet.
Hacker’s legs were also used for the Badgers women’s track and field team. In the 2017 indoor season, she ran a 3,000-meter race in 11:51.70 as UW beat Southern Illinois-Edwardsville in a dual meet.
She had a personal best 5:31.21 in the mile at the UW Shell Shocker meet. Later that year during the outdoor season at the UW Alumni Classic in Madison, she recorded her best time in the 1,500 meters in 4:55.41.
Throughout her running career at UW, Hacker said she was surrounded by people who always inspired and encouraged her.
“Collegiate athletics is not all about intensity. We were just a group of people learning how to live life, run well, and take care of our physical and mental health,” Hacker said.
Hacker’s parents were also there to provide her with support when she needed it.
“They always helped me understand that I can only give it my best effort and that always made me feel stronger,” she said. “My body can do what my body can do, and I believed I could do a lot. The dreams of what I believed was possible helped motivate me.”