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April 15, 2014

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Exclusive: Natasha Wicks, injured UFC ring girl turned Olympic hopeful

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Natasha Wicks.

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Natasha Wicks

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Natasha Wicks.

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Natasha Wicks.

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Natasha Wicks.

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Natasha Wicks.

It’s an incredible story of courage, commitment and passion: One-time UFC ring girl Natasha Wicks has dealt with years of injuries after a college accident where her tailbone was knocked out of alignment. Incredibly, after a six-year break, she’s now practicing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team to run in the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics in 2016.

The 27-year-old beauty who recently modeled for WonderCon told me: “It was bad enough to where it took me a whole season to have it completely realigned, and after that I was dealing with a lot of compensation injuries. So, it was just injury after injury, and it was really discouraging.

“I was pretty burned out by the time it was all done and just wanted to take a break. I still raced here and there, but it was like nothing at a national level. And then just one thing led to another, and I started modeling, and everything just kind of shifted and other priorities took over the No. 1 spot.

“After a while, I thought this is fun, but it didn’t bring me total happiness and fulfillment. It wasn’t until the end of this last year that I went to Hawaii and took some time to really think about what I love and what I’m the most passionate about, and that is definitely running for me. The running, and passion for running, I thought this is what I want to do. I never stopped dreaming about it. When I was in high school and college, I wanted to compete in the Olympics.”

Ryan Geurts, founder of the Las Vegas 5K and president of Ryno Running, said: “I get the sense that Natasha has a burning desire to prove herself as an elite runner. The fact that her college career was cut short by nagging injuries makes us believe that she still has a lot in her tank. She exemplifies the passion and positivity we look for in athletes. We are very excited to watch her develop and make a name for herself as a competitive runner over the next few years.”

I talked with the Las Vegas glamour girl who was named Maxim’s UFC Octagon Girl in 2009 about her life after she was replaced two years ago as the girl in the Octagon and in advance of her debut in Kansas City on April 28 as the ring girl of a new, all-female fighting organization.

Natasha Wicks: They just replaced me, they wanted a different look. I still stay pretty involved in the MMA industry, and I’m actually ring girl-ing again now for the new, biggest, all-women’s MMA organization -- Invicta Fighting Championships -- so I still do it, I still model, I still do all that stuff, but my running has become my main focus, my main passion.

Now I’m in serious training for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. My goals are to compete on a national and world level in the 5K, 10K and half-marathon and dominate the Olympic trials and then place in the Top Three at the Olympics.

Robin Leach: That’s a high-altitude country, and you are training in the low-desert altitude area of Vegas.

NW: I am, but every day I wear a high-altitude mask one hour a day, and I’m training with a really good circle of people who are high-altitude experts … running experts. We are four years away, so if I felt like I wasn’t getting the high-altitude training that I need, then I would move to Flagstaff, where I went to college, or somewhere I knew I would be getting the training that I need.

But I have people watching my blood and all that kind of stuff to make sure I am getting the benefits. I’m a 10K runner -- I would prefer in the Olympics to be on a cross-country course, like on a trail, because I love it, and I train that way a lot. It’s a lot more fun than running circles of 25 laps.

RL: Did some of the UFC physical activity rub off on you as a runner?

NW: Yes, definitely. I’ve taken kickboxing classes before, and I wanted to start taking jiu-jitsu, but I didn’t want to start that at this moment because I am training hard and trying to get ready for a big 5K race in May here at Town Square organized by my Las Vegas hometown sponsor Ryno Running with nearly 2,000 runners. The first-place guy and the first-place girl both get $1,000, so it’s nice. It’s nice to be able to win cash for a prize.

A lot of my friends are in the UFC and the MMA, so you learn a lot by hanging out with these guys, and I appreciate the fact that they all work out, especially the ones who are totally dedicated to it. They all work out two to three times a day all week long, and they are a lot healthier. The ones who are truly dedicated, they don’t drink, they eat really healthy, they’re sleeping, and I’ve learned a lot. My boyfriend, UFC light-heavyweight fighter Kyle Kingsbury, has also taught me a lot about stamina and belief in oneself.

RL: A long time ago, I vaguely remember watching a movie called “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” Is long-distance running lonely?

NW: You know, it can be. Some people, they don’t like to be alone, ever, but I think I found, as someone who has been training and running long distance, not a lot of people can run over 3 miles, so you tend to be kind of a loner when you run. But I never feel bored or lonely, and I’ve always kind of preferred to run by myself unless I’m running with another runner of the same level who can keep up. If I’m out in nature, I usually prefer to not listen to music. If I’m running on the road, I do like to listen to music to drown out all the cars because it can be stressful sometimes.

RL: When do you know if you’ve qualified for the Olympics, and what do you have to do to qualify?

NW: You have to be running. First of all, you submit your time that qualifies you for the Olympic trials, and you don’t want to lie about that because you will be thrown out of the water if you are not at that level. Everyone is asking why aren’t you doing it this year. Because I know I’m not ready, I know I’m not running that time or even close to that time at this point, because I have maintained my running, and I have maintained a high level of fitness, but I haven’t raced as hardcore as I have in the past. It really is about just that, a running time competing at a level that is in the Olympics. I have to finish in the Top Three to qualify.

RL: What is the record time for a 10K in the Olympics?

NW: For a woman, it’s 30:17; the world record is 29:31. Those times were run on a track, which is a flat course, and I’ve never actually run a 10K on a track except for when I was back in college, and that was when I was injured and blocked it out of my mind. But on a rugged, cross-country course with hills, I ran a 36:15. It sounds like a huge difference, but take in the facts that there are hills and I wasn’t in the best shape that I know I could be. I was just in good shape, but not the best shape.

RL: So is everybody telling you that you’ve got the right stuff to do this?

NW: Everyone is encouraging, and everyone is, like, wow, that is awesome, go for your goals. I don’t know how many of those people believe that I can do it, but it really doesn’t matter if other people think I can do it. It’s more of I know I want to try, and it is my passion. I just love to run, so what better thing to do than to try for the Olympics.

I’ve always referred to myself as Secretariat; the horse had the best of both worlds. The horse’s father, the stallion, was really fast, he had all the speed, and then his mother was an endurance horse, she just had great endurance. Well, my mom Caroline Woodbury was the first woman to ever have a state title for cross-country in Nevada, and my mom always had really great endurance. And my father Bruce Roberts was actually a sprinter. So I’ve always thought I was a natural athlete.

It doesn’t take much, I could not run for a month or two, and then go out and do 8 miles and feel fine. I wouldn’t be … sore the next day. I’ve always had a natural ability to run. I’m just excited because I have a really good team of people I’m working with who will teach me things I don’t know and get me to that next level that maybe I just can’t push myself to.

RL: Are you on a special diet?

NW: I do a lot of juicing, not steroid juicing obviously, but I juice about three times a day, fruits and vegetables. I try to minimize sugars and dairy products, but I don’t really cut anything out of my diet. I eat all organic. Kyle is gluten intolerant, so I do a lot of gluten-free cooking, and then I don’t do sodas, don’t drink and don’t do coffee. I have a lot of energy naturally.

RL: At age 27, is this late for running, or is this a good age?

NW: It would be late if I was just starting to run, but the fact that I have a good base is helpful. I wouldn’t say it’s late because a lot of the women who are competing in the Olympics are in their late 20s to 30s to 40s. I’ll be 31 when I go to Brazil. It’s a good age and, anyway, it’s just a number. I still feel physically, I would say mentally, too, I’ve matured since 21, but physically I definitely still feel very young and energized and healthy.

My sisters could never run because they’ve always had knee problems, and even with all the pounding and the miles that I have put in, I’ve never had them. There’s been no reoccurrence of the injuries to the tailbone. I see a chiropractor twice a week. I have people checking and making sure everything is aligned.

RL: Is it somewhat of a miracle that the girl who got sidelined by injury is now training for the Olympics?

NW: I definitely think so. I started with a coach who didn’t believe in me at all and really was very discouraging and added to that discouragement. I have always loved to run, but I lost a lot of that passion when I just felt like I couldn’t get through the injuries. Now I have a lot more tools to help me get back to where I was and way past there.

I’m excited for the next few years leading up to the Olympics and beyond that. It will come fast, and that is something that I remind myself every day when I wake up. I might feel a little tired, or a little sorer, but I just remind myself that I have to get focused and stay focused because it definitely will come fast.

Vegas DeLuxe will be rooting for Natasha on her journey to the Olympics, and we’ll keep track of her progress.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow VDLX Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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