PHOENIX – In Nikita and Keira Moore’s hometown of Brisbane, Australia, hot summers and warm winters are normal with not too many cold days. The locals have an Aussie drawl and there is plenty of Vegemite to go around.
So the culture shock was stark when the sisters came to the United States to run cross country for Northern Arizona University’s acclaimed program. Flagstaff’s high altitude, along with its mountains and cold climate, serve as a backdrop for their unusual journey.
The two are separated in age by a year, and for a year, they were an ocean apart with Nikita attending NAU while Keira finished her final year of high school back home in Australia at Brisbane State High School.
Now, running has brought the sisters together again, allowing them to relish in their shared experiences while they navigate their new world.
“It’s really good to have her here,” Keira said. “It’s a little piece of home, (which) definitely helps with homesickness.”
Nikita was already established as an accomplished cross country runner before arriving at NAU. She earned seven national medals during her early career. She also earned a place on Australia’s U20 women’s team for the 2019 World Cross Country Championships, where she finished 80th.
The sisters’ mother, Lizel Moore, said Nikita took care of the entire recruitment process by herself. However, Lizel did have some advice for her two oldest children, telling them to find good, supportive coaches and a great place to train.
“My main advice for them was that you need to go somewhere that’s beautiful because where we live is very beautiful and running in trails is really nice, so to me, that was really important,” she said.
Flagstaff, which sits at about 7,000 feet above sea level, attracts many world-class runners for high-altitude training. The city’s numerous trails and NAU’s Olympic-style training facilities make it a runners’ paradise.
Initially, Nikita was open to going anywhere as she explored her options.
“(My) 16-, 17-year-old self just wanted to look at every school possible and really find what was the best school for me, and I really had no idea about different states and different places in America,” she said.
She considered schools in Florida and Wisconsin before settling on the Lumberjacks. In the end, the people and the culture at NAU won her over.
“I got on a call with some of the older girls, and I thought they were really down to earth and adventurous and fun,” Nikita said. “That was the type of people I wanted to be around.”
Her teammates and coaches helped her through her first year in the U.S., which was one filled with adjustments. She said training at NAU is more deliberately paced compared to Australia, and the team is more united during workouts.
“We’re in the middle of a workout motivating each other and running together, whereas at home, it was (just) get on the solid line and race each other,” she said.
Nikita also had to adjust to American culture, which she said is more sensitive than Australia’s.
“(Australians) just don’t really think about what we say,” she said. “It’s just everything is taken as a joke, but that was something I really had to learn. And it took me a little bit of time, but I definitely have transitioned to that American culture, and I do really like it.”
She communicated frequently during her freshman year with Keira and the rest of her family, thanks to the internet and a family group chat.
“I think it’s so special how big social media is these days that I have that opportunity,” she said.
Nikita redshirted during her first collegiate cross country season to give her time to make the adjustment to NAU from Australia, according to NAU assistant coach Becca Plfugard, who is in her sixth season with the Lumberjacks and focuses on distance and middle-distance events.
Pflugard noted that eligibility for cross country, indoor track and field and outdoor track and field seasons are treated separately, which gives the Lumberjacks flexibility to manage their rosters and allows athletes to redshirt in the fall and take the time needed to adjust to the college lifestyle and demands on athletes.
Once Nikita was activated for the track and field seasons, she performed well, especially during the outdoor campaign. She placed fifth at the Big Sky Conference Track & Field Championships in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, finishing in 10:34.98. She also earned a spot in the event’s NCAA West preliminary rounds.
While Nikita was adjusting to the American lifestyle and training at NAU, Keira was busy as a senior at Brisbane State High School.
She excelled in the 2021 Queensland Girls Secondary Schools Sports Association Track and Field Athletics Championships, winning the 800-meter and 1,500-meter races in the 17-plus age group and finishing fourth in the 400-meters.
Keira remained busy off the track as well, but began to miss her sister more during the holidays.
“I was working and trying to earn money before I came over here, and that’s where I think I really missed her because I did not have as many distractions,” Keira said. “It was definitely really hard, especially not having that training partner who is around my pace and someone to do all of my easy runs with.”
Despite the distance, Nikita was able to give her younger sister plenty of advice during her recruiting process.
Keira had her eyes set on NAU after hearing about Nikita’s experience, but other schools were also in the running, including Utah, Florida and Oklahoma State.
Initially, Keira wanted to follow her own path.
“I just wanted to be independent (and) do something different to her,” Keira said. “That changed quickly after I heard everything about NAU and talking to the NAU coaches compared to other coaches. It was an obvious choice.”
So running brought the sisters back together at NAU, where Keira was able to adjust to life in the U.S. more quickly than her sister, which surprised her.
“I thought, honestly, it would take a lot longer because I’m quite a reserved person,” Keira said. “It takes me a long time to get to know people, but we do a lot of team activities and team meetings. I’ve adjusted to getting to know everyone super quickly and also to life in America as well.”
Winter in Flagstaff is summer in Australia, and Brisbane is 17 hours ahead of Arizona on the clock.
“She was struggling to sleep initially because your day is so out of whack,” Plfugard said. “Once she got over those hurdles, she did awesome and immediately was jumping into training with the whole team and doing a really awesome job.”
Back home, Keira saw her mom as someone she could go to for advice on everything. In Flagstaff, Pflugard has helped fill that role.
“She’s been really good, especially because I have a little injury and she’s been super supportive and helpful with keeping me sane while I can’t run,” Keira said.
That injury has forced Keira to take a redshirt season for this cross country season, just like Nikita did in the fall.
Pflugrad was happy to hear Keira’s remarks because she said it affirms what the NAU coaching staff wants for the team.
“We want to be able to build trust, and relationships are the most important part of what we do here,” Pflugard said. “We spend so much time just meeting with our athletes and just making sure that we’re really cultivating that relationship and building trust, because that’s going to come way before any of the training elements.”
Although Keira could not compete in this year’s cross country meets, she did get to see her sister compete, joining the team on a trip to Stillwater, Oklahoma for the Cowboy Jamboree on Sept. 24.
The meet included 20 teams from different collegiate divisions, including two NCAA Division II schools and two community colleges. The NAU women took second place against a field that included six teams ranked in that week’s NCAA Division I Women’s Cross Country National Coaches’ Poll.
Nikita finished 57th overall and eighth on the team with a time of 21:24. Her performance did not count towards the team score, but she was part of NAU’s fifth through 10th place running group that performed better than any other team’s fifth through 10th runners that day.
Pflugard said getting the freshmen to experience a major cross country meet, especially athletes from outside of the U.S., can be a big advantage for them later.
“We want to go ahead and start preparing them for that environment,” Plfugard said. “We foresee them racing in the future, so as opposed to waiting a whole year to put them in that environment, we want to go ahead and get them there immediately once they step on campus.
“It’s a way for them to just go through the motions of travel, learn how we do things, go through a warm-up with the team and a cool down and essentially act like you’re racing without doing the racing part.”
Keira was amazed by the size of the event.
“I knew there would be a lot of people there, but it was definitely a shock in comparison to the meets at home,” she said. “The meets here are just huge. The depth of the runners is just insane. It was just amazing to see how the team connects in preparation for the race and gets ready. They all raced incredible on that day.”
Pflugard said getting the freshmen out to a meet can also build friendships, bringing the team closer together.
“Just being freshmen, it’s your first time here and you’re still really bonding with the team,” Pflugard said. “We want to make sure that we’re also promoting that, because a lot of those relationships happen on the road.”
NAU returns to Stillwater for the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships Saturday, where the NAU women will compete as an at-large team. They received the invitation after losing a tiebreaker to Utah for the Mountain Region’s second and final automatic bid last weekend. Nikita did not run in the regional meet.
The bigger and deeper fields in collegiate meets means both Nikita and Keira are having to take on a new challenge. They’re not accustomed to trailing faster runners.
“It’s tricky for them because they come from racing here, where they dominated races, to then suddenly these huge fields of very talented athletes, so that’s a big adjustment,” their mom said.
There may be more running Moores to come. There are two more sisters, ages 14 and 16, back in Australia.
The family reunites once a year, according to Lizel, usually in May or June after the collegiate outdoor track and field season ends. She said Nikita stayed with the family in Australia for about five weeks before resuming training at NAU.
She added that saying goodbye to her daughters is getting easier, especially because she knows the support NAU is giving them.
“It’s nice having them home, but because they’re so happy, it’s easy to also say goodbye and they can continue on their journey over there,” she said.