Kate Grace is the first sports state champion in the 116-year history of Los Angeles Marlborough, a prestigious all-girls school known for its academic excellence, and the story of how she accomplished her feat reveals the magic and wonders of life as a high school student.
Grace was a club soccer standout when she began her freshman year. She had no intention of participating in cross-country.
"In ninth grade, I would rather do a lot of things before I ran," she recalled.
Except the soccer coach mandated that his players join the school's cross-country team as part of their preseason conditioning.
"She was kind of forced," cross-country Coach Jimmie Grant said.
Grace competed in races only, never training during the week, and won the Sunshine League title as a freshman.
"I tried to quit that year," she said. "I tried to quit in 10th grade. I was not going to run cross-country again. I didn't run the first couple of weeks. But these two girls made these little letters, 'Please run cross-country. We need you.'
"I finally accepted my fate. I've learned to love it. These same teammates who were stalking me and pestering me, now they're my best friends."
Last month, Grace won the state Division IV individual championship in cross-country with a school-record time of 18 minutes 44 seconds over the 3.1-mile course in Fresno and helped Marlborough win its first team title.
Last spring, she won Southern Section Division V track championships in the 400 and 800 meters and finished fourth in the state finals in the 800.
She's still playing soccer and vying to be the No. 1 student in her senior class, having never received a grade other than A on her report card. Last month, she was accepted at Yale, and plans to run track there.
Grace's mother, Kathy Smith, is a well-known health and fitness author. Her father, Steve Grace, formerly ran LA36, a community television station in Los Angeles.
Grant wonders what the 5-foot-8 Grace might be capable of if she devoted more time in her workouts to running.
"I've coached a lot of talented athletes, and she's the most unique in that she has [the best] combination of speed and endurance I've ever seen," he said. "We've never had a preseason track season with her. She always comes out in March."
Grace has been unwilling to give up all the other experiences of high school to focus exclusively on one sport or one interest. She's involved in school clubs and plays the piano at school concerts.
She wanted to explore her options, and it paid off in her discovering a talent that she never knew existed.
"There are tons of opportunities out there," she said. "I had no idea when I was in ninth grade what was going to happen. Having an open mind, trying new things, can lead to great things."
Said Grant: "We had to work around so many different things. Time didn't allow her to do as much as she wanted."
But don't get the wrong impression of Grace's dedication to running.
"What's remarkable is how she's been able to do it," Grant said. "She had to train. You can't just roll out of bed and be a state champion."
Grace did her most extensive training for cross-country this fall, running close to 35 miles a week.
"It was definitely a love-hate relationship," she said. "The hate was the workouts and the feelings you get on the hard days you don't feel fast. I got more love from the running, the love of being with the teammates and winning."
Grace plans on training harder for track this spring, but she's not about to give up her senior year of soccer after helping her team win its first league title last season.
"For me, it's a chance to let your hair down," she said. "It's a fun game, the skills and the passing. When it all works, there's always something happening and the chance to be creative. I still love soccer."
But Grace isn't likely to forget the moment in cross-country when she had to bear down and call upon all her pride and determination to win the state title.
"It's painful, but it's definitely worth it," she said. "There was a point, 800 meters to go, I was behind 10 meters and I had all my teammates' parents yelling, 'Kate, you can do it.' It's a mental thing. Something clicks. This is what all those hard practices are for. It hurts a lot to bring it all together."
That's what Grace does best -- juggle responsibilities and find a way to succeed.
\o7Eric Sondheimer can be reached at email@example.com.