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Trial of the trail

Welsh tells a story from the belly of a beast of a Blue Wave season

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Off to the races go Darien runners, sophomore Anne Johnston (second in blue from right) and senior Sarah Colon (first on right) in front for the Wave earlier this season.

GIRLS CROSS COUNTRY

“Some of the greatest stories are never told,” said Wave assistant girls cross country coach Raquel Welsh.

This one will be.

Raquel says

“I would like to tell a story that deserves to be heard and recognized by more than just a coach, but by a community that is known to acknowledge superstar athletes and talents,” she continued, in a written account following a heart-felt season where DHS ran further than it had gone since the late 80’s.

So — once upon a sports season in Darien — here is a coach’s own tale that will now indeed be seen.

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Raquel Welsh has been assistant coach for girls’ cross country, track and girls basketball the past five seasons.

“To bring you to the present, I must dwell in the past and highlight why this season was so important. Four years ago, four freshmen had a dream, a goal to make it to the New England meet. These four freshmen were Sarah Colon, Katie Farren, Ellen Bauer, and Grace Loh; entering a sport they had never imagined would become their favorite, yet (a) drudgery at the same time.

After an amateur season of few highlights they trained on, only to return their sophomore year hopeful and with more knowledge of what they were getting themselves into.

A season of injury and sickness plagued the team, but onward still they trained striding after upperclassmen, and at times performing in place of juniors and seniors that had fallen to bronchitis, flu and knee injury.

Getting a chance to compete at states and taste was only the beginning of a very long journey. But that only sharpened their minds and focused their energy at getting the job done the next year. They trained in indoor and outdoor track competing and winning titles and medals, but in the back of their minds always thinking, will we be at New Englands this fall? Will we go where no team has been since 1987?

Running — such a mind game it is — one day you’re hitting negative splits and the next you’re dragging your feet on a two mile run. No matter the day it’s a fight to discipline your body and train it to run faster, smoother, stronger and of course always longer. It’s a battle that is most often fought with your inner self; the runner inside, or the wimp that will just jog a mile and call it a tough workout.

These girls have run more miles than days in a year, and it’s not like soccer or lacrosse where the game is always changing and at a rapid pace with plays, timeouts and substitutions.

And no, it’s not even a sport that has contact where injuries are caused by opponents. These injuries are self-inflicted, caused by brutal training and disciplining the body to perform.

There are no replacements that come off the bench and let you get a 30 second breather. There are no time-outs where the coach can pull you in for a motivation talk or a swift kick in the guts to get you going.

It’s a repeat pattern of various running drills and exercises and in the end call it what you like but it’s simply running; never changing and ever changing all at the same time.

As juniors they came in refreshed and eager and ready to give it another go.

With two strong seniors and now five strong juniors we were the perfect combination of talent to get us to our goal. But as the FCIACs brought pressure and head games to our front runner and a battle of iron deficiencies and stomach bug ate away at our strong seven, we watched our hopes slowly diminish.

As the state opens came they held in believing maybe it will happen this year because if you want it enough your will, will take over and do the work.

But as they toed the line and gave their all it just wasn’t enough. Times weren’t fast enough, points were low enough, and we just missed qualifying for New England’s for another year.

Disappointed they packed their bags and hung their heads…but just for a day. Because the next day would be their first day of training for next year.

If these girls were to have one quality that categorized them all it would be determination. Not defeat, not dedication, no those were prior years. Now, it’s personal.

Now they have one more season to prove themselves.

As senior year presses in and the first meet is soon approaching, the girls are ready and this time six strong seniors, but not just six seniors; we have a new runner. An underclassman making big waves in the ocean of running.

Her name is Anne Johnston, and she came in with a mindset to do something big.

Which is just what our team needed.

So we had seven strong contenders.

But as prepared and well trained as you can be, the unexpected can happen.

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Grace Loh, one of four Wave senior runners who paid heavy dues to play.

Just you and the trail

And for the Wave it did. With a runner developing Lyme over the summer and a top runner injuring her calf, we were easy to take lightly. But it didn’t stop these girls, because they decided now or never, injury or sickness, exhaustion or soreness, now is our time to take what is rightfully ours.

With the four who started it all as captains of this dream they pushed each other. From bloody blisters that required new shoe designs and cutouts, from collapsing in the heat and caving under pressure, calf pains, cramps, headaches, medication reactions, college visits, on and on the list goes.

With only three meets left the girls began to realize time is running out. Will we measure up, will we finally accomplish a four year goal?

Greatness is not defined by medals, trophies, and write-ups in the newspaper, it’s not defined by how many followers you have on Twitter or on Instagram. Greatness is defined by the miles you run alone in training, the pace you set when it’s just you and the trail; the tears you shed after a race you lost by one place. Greatness is defined in what you do when no one acknowledges you, and how you handle defeat and disappointment. This is what makes you great. These girls know that feeling, which is what makes them great.

As the results of the state meet put us in second we swallowed our pride and trained for the next week at opens, our one last shot. So close you can taste it, but no one was counting their chickens and no one was even thinking, what if? We all knew our chances and it would take a strong race from everyone to get there.

“Once again Wilton stood in our way. As we headed home for another week of training we were surprised by hurricane Sandy canceling practice and school for a week. After seven days of no organized practice we drove up to opens and hoped for the best. This was judgment day.

Girls were nervous, knowing the battle ahead. The “green monster.” For some this was their sixth attempt at the monster and now it was time to slay it.

Anne led the Wave, fighting for a top five finish and Grace fighting for a top 25, Sarah, Ellen, Katie, Sophie and Claire fighting to pick off Wilton girls and go after the top six teams.

As each girl crossed the line they didn’t ask their time or place they asked: “did we make it? Do you think we got it? Was it enough?” Coach Norris and I counted the places and positions comparing the times, holding our breath.

After eliminating eight different schools we realized we just may have made it. But only the officials can make that call. We gathered on the hill huddled for warmth and support anxiously waiting for a four-year goal to be met.

Teams were read off. Eighth and seventh place were called we held our breath, then sixth and fifth were called, and finally Darien in fourth, we didn’t just make it we had beaten Wilton, as well, making us the top school in Class L division.

With tears and shouts of joy and parents that travel every meet and mile to cheer on these girls it was accomplished.

The weight of four years was over. What a journey what a ride — something that hadn’t been done in over 20 years.

As we prepared for New Englands you can’t help but think, is this real, and how was it so long ago that we started this? And now here it is the ending of an era, but really, it’s just the beginning. For now these little birds will fly. Their friendship and comaraderie will slowly dissolve and states and many miles will separate them, but they will forever be the class that never backed down, gave in, crumbled under pressure, but instead lifted their heads out of the mud, brushed the dust off and just kept running. Gold-refined over and over again until it is pure, no impurities. When placed under extreme heat and pressure it is brought out perfected.

Congratulations to a determined group of ladies. It’s been an honor. You have left your mark and big shoes to fill. Never forget the moment when your hard work was rewarded.”

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Coach of many decades Steve Norris first got Darien into New Englands in 1987.

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Darien Times Sports Editor since 2000

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