USA TODAY High School Sports is featuring the 12 athletes in the running for the Gatorade National Athlete of the Year, which will be announced July 16 in Los Angeles. Today's spotlight: Sarah Baxter (girls cross country).
At 7 a.m. during summer, you won’t find Simi Valley (Calif.) junior Sarah Baxter hitting her snooze button. Rather, she’ll already be tying her shoes in prep for a morning run.
Baxter not only understands the commitment her sport demands, she’s also unfazed by it. Life without running is a life Baxter can’t even imagine.
“I’m not really good at anything else,” she candidly said.
And perhaps that’s a good thing — because she is really good at running. Baxter’s stats prove she’s one fireball who captivates in a race.
Last November, Baxter won her third consecutive state championship and set a course record of 16 minutes, 40 seconds. A month prior, Baxter sped through the Mount SAC Invitational in 16:00, breaking the course record by 15 seconds. Her performance was recognized by PrepCalTrack.com editor Rich Gonzalez as one of the greatest is prep history.
Baxter continued to impress as she defended her Nike Cross Nationals title last December, when she tore up the course with a time of 19:17 — the first runner in the event’s history to win back to back. To an outsider, her performance might have appeared seamless and easy, but Baxter admitted that race was her most challenging of them all.
“I’m definitely not used to running in mud. I don’t think I’ve ever been so sore or tired in my entire life,” she said.
Baxter’s hard-earned victories were recognized and celebrated in January, when she sat in history class when Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix surprised by presenting her with the 2012-13 Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
Catching up with Baxter (no pun intended), she analyzes her sport and athletic career.
Tell us about when running was born into your life.
Baxter: I tried soccer growing up, but I wasn’t coordinated, and I wasn’t aggressive enough. I was about 7 when I first started running. I was put into the sport hoping that I would be able to do well. I ran for a youth club. I thought it was fun. I liked it better than soccer.
As someone who has been involved in the sport for years, speak to what you think is most misunderstood about running.
Baxter: Some people think it’s easy. It’s not. It’s pretty hard to get up at 7 o’clock in the morning during summer and go for a run when you’d rather sleep.
What do you tell yourself when you need a kick of motivation?
Baxter: I think about why I started running and why I keep doing it. I’ve always had hard days. They’re not going to stop; they’re going to keep coming. I tell myself to push through this one day and hopefully tomorrow will be better. You’ve got to push for the people that you’re running for. I run for my team and my family.
Do you find running to be more taxing mentally or physically?
Baxter: It’s mentally taxing a lot of times. You get on the starting line and see all these girls who look really fast and you’re next to your teammates, and you can tell that they’re nervous, too. You get in your head that this is going to be really hard. You’ve got to get past that mentality.
You don’t know how your team is going to do. You could do really well or poorly and it can be disappointing because you wish you could have done more. Also, individually, there are a lot of fast girls out there. They know what they’re doing. They’re not just coming out and racing for the sake of it. They’re out there to win, too. You want to be able to push yourself to where you can race with them.
Running is such an individual sport. Why do you feel it’s necessary to support each other as teammates?
Baxter: A lot of times with running you could be stuck in no man’s land and knowing that you have your team there and people cheering for you and caring about what you’re doing and know what you’re going through, it’s means a world of difference. Your teammates go through the same thing as you everyday. You can really meet up with them on the same level.
Who do you look up to in the sport?
Baxter: A lot of Olympians — Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher and Billy Mills. And, not quite an Olympian yet, Jordan Hasay. I look up to her a lot — she’s from California, and she had an amazing high school career.