Simi Valley (Simi Valley, Calif.) junior distance runner Sarah Baxter is soft-spoken and profoundly shy. In part for that reason, she embraces the solitude of her sport.
Her personality had a head-on collision with dizzying notoriety today when Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix made a surprise visit to Simi Valley to tell Baxter she was named 2012-13 Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
“Am I freaking out right now? Yes,” said Baxter, who’s now a finalist for the Gatorade Girls High School Athlete of the Year award.“I kind of went blank, I guess, when Allyson Felix walked in. I was just like, ‘Wow.’ I have looked at the names on the trophy and, yes, I feel a lot of pressure to live up to that. I can’t believe my name is there.”
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The Gatorade Player of the Year program recognizes outstanding athletic excellence as well as high standards of academic achievement and exemplary character demonstrated on and off the course. Felix was named the Gatorade National Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year as a high school senior in 2002-03.
This past fall, the 5-foot-6 Baxter won her second consecutive Nike Cross Nationals title (19:17). A three-time Gatorade California Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year, Baxter went unbeaten for the season and captured the Division 1 state championship in a course-record time of 16:40. She also broke course records at the Mt. SAC Invitational, Woodbridge Invitational, Marmonte League championships and Southern Section championships.
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“Sarah Baxter really had a season for the ages,” said Steve Underwood, DyeStat Editor for Runnerspace.com. “The Golden State has produced many greats, but no one has run faster in the two biggest meets on the most storied layouts: The Mt. SAC Invitational and the state meet at Woodward Park. She is arguably already California’s greatest of all time.”
A three-time cross country state champion, Baxter became the first high school runner to defend the NXN title since the event’s inception in 2004. She has never lost a high school cross country race.
“Surprising Sarah was such a cool moment to be a part of,” said Felix, who won the 200-meter dash at the 2012 London Games. “It’s a key moment in their lives. So many of the people who’ve won this award have gone on to incredible careers, and it’s so special to see them at the beginning of it all when it’s all fresh and new.”
Baxter, 17, has maintained a 3.22 GPA. She has volunteered as a member of the Junior American Legion Auxiliary and the Simi Valley High recycling club. She has also donated her time on behalf of a senior citizen thrift store and coached youth running.
Baxter, who remains undecided on a college destination, is the 59th athlete from California to earn national Gatorade honors in the award’s 27-year history. She’s the second Californian to win the national award for girls’ cross country, joining 2008-09 Gatorade National Runner of the Year Jordan Hasay. Hasay is now a two-time NCAA champion runner at Oregon.
California has produced more national Gatorade winners than any other state. Texas (27), Florida (19) and Illinois (15) are next.