“Journey to a Championship”
Saturday morning, eight o’clock, twenty-eight degrees, seven team-mates on the starting line—quite a way to start the weekend. We set out from Darlington High School at six o’clock that morning, the boy’s and girl’s cross country teams, ready to run a good race, give our best effort, and see how we compared to the best teams in the state of Georgia. For some of us, State would be our last high school race ever, for others, just the beginning; but the girl’s team had one common goal—overcome the powerhouse that was First Presbyterian Day School and win the State Championship. A seasoned team, we had achieved a spot on the podium two years earlier when I was a sophomore for a fourth place finish, but that would not be good enough after all the work we put into the season this time around. We knew we were better than that and wanted to prove ourselves to the rest of the state.
By the time we made our way to the start line, we had no nerves left, but our adrenaline was through the roof. We had been training since June for this moment, and here November was; we had never been more ready. Six months in the making, no way we were going to let our opportunity slip away. The gun was fired, and the top two hundred girls in Georgia classification Single-A took off. Someone fell in the first one hundred meters though, so the gun was fired again for us to return to the start line. Everyone reorganized, then once again the gun was fired and we were off. Twenty-one minutes later our top five runners were done with the frost-covered 3.1-mile winding, hilly course. As I came across the finish line, I was thrilled to see all of our scoring team members in the chute with me. All of our top-five runners were in the top twenty-three in the race; things were looking good for the Darlington girls.
Flashback to three months earlier, the first week of classes in my senior year. We had competed in two races so far, and I had been first on the team in both. I was thrilled with my times and that my teammates were digging in to have every run be a new personal best. We had trained harder than ever that summer and were running faster than ever before. In the first week of school we did a trail run on the mountains behind Darlington. Going down one of the trails, I stepped on a root and rolled my ankle, tearing the majority of the ligaments and chipping off some bone. I was in a boot for the next two and a half months, only able to aqua-jog for an hour every day and cheer on the rest of the team at meets.
In addition to my injury, two of our other top-seven runners started experiencing dizzy spells and having seizures when they ran, putting us down by a total of three before we even progressed into the core of the season. As a team captain, I kept encouraging all the runners and watching them improve and thrive while I sat by and watched. By the time the boot came off there were only two weeks left in the season and two meets, Region and State. I was determined that I would at least make the cut to be one of our top seven runners so I could run in my last state meet, and I worked hard every day for those two weeks to get in as good shape as I could. I made the cut.
Within the first few weeks of school it seemed like our dreams of winning a state championship might be slipping away. Our coaches, Alan Parish, Kelly McDurmon, and Katie Ellis would never let us lose faith in each other. They worked with those of us who were unable to run to keep our spirits up, and created virtual meets to prove to everyone that we were fully capable of being the fastest team in the state if everyone had their best race on that cold morning in November. By the time we made our way to Carrollton, GA for state, each runner knew what time she would have to run, ranging from 20:30 to 21:30, for us to win.
While not a single team member made the top ten individually, we had five runners in the top twenty-five. First Presbyterian Day had the first and third place runners in the state, as well as another girl in the top twenty-five. Most spectators thought that First Pres had won the race by a landslide, but their last two runners were about a minute, or 20 places slower than their third place runner. This gap is what gave Darlington the upper hand. Even though we had a slower top-five average time and less impressive place finishes individually, we truly took advantage of the team aspect of cross country, working together to come up with a lower overall score than everyone else. Winning truly as a team in a largely individualized sport made winning state that year even sweeter and more meaningful for all of us.
Many of us had been running together and under Coach Parish for five years, since I was in seventh grade. Coach Parish told us at the beginning of the year that he had been looking forward to that year, when those of us who he coached in middle school would be juniors and seniors, for five years, since he had first seen our potential and team chemistry all those years before. His faith in us kept us motivated through the struggles of injuries and sickness, and made us learn to believe in each other wholeheartedly.
One obstacle that can often tear a team apart is competition for spots or roles on the team, whether that be first place runner, MVP, a position as a starter, or team captain. The incredible thing about the cross team that year was that everyone was so motivated and determined to win state that we had different people occupying different positions on the team every race. Rather than creating tension between team members though, we learned to be excited for each other when we got faster, even if that meant being overcome as first or second place runner. This competition and lack of position security encouraged us all to keep improving to try to move up the ladder or to regain a spot we had held previously, making us stronger individually and more importantly as a unit all the while. This competitive spirit and sense of unity no matter who was first or last is what brought our top five runners across the finish line within a span of thirty-six seconds, ultimately lifting us over the competition.
Of all of the experiences that I have had through competing in athletics, winning a cross country state championship with the team of girls we had that year has been by far the most memorable and significant. Having known all of the girls on the team but one since middle school and competing together for that long made winning state with them in my last high school race even more special and strengthened our bonds. Cross country is a unique sport in that as long as you continue making workouts more challenging and pushing yourself harder and ignoring the pain a body feels when it is pushed to the breaking point, there are really no limits to how much someone can improve. Almost everyone on the team set new personal records for the course at state that year, a traditionally very slow and challenging course—a true tribute to the value of hard work and determination.
After some of the excitement had cooled off a few weeks later a funny thought came up in regards to being state champions. A lot of people on the team, myself included, had people congratulate them on winning state, and then they would comment that they wished they had joined the cross-country team. I never thought much of the statement; who wouldn’t want a slice of the recognition and excitement that came with winning a state championship? The idea that someone suggested, though, was:
Do they really wish they had joined the cross-country team? Do they really wish they had gotten up at six in the morning to run every day in the summer and every Saturday during the school year as well as running every day after school?
Probably not. Sure, standing up in chapel and receiving a standing ovation when you present the trophy to the school, or wearing big state champion rings around campus are great, but that doesn’t just happen. In our case every person had to run six days a week for six months straight, certainly no cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination.
Our team journey to a championship was no different from that of any other dedicated athlete or team. Working hard for months, really years since middle school, for that one opportunity when everything would come together and all the hard work would pay off is just what it takes to achieve dreams. Henry Ford said it best when he stated, “Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re probably right.” The first step to success is simply believing in yourself or your team, as the Darlington girls cross country team did that incredible morning in November 2010.