Breathing hard, I pushed myself up the steep incline of the grassy hill. All around me, I could hear the sounds of pounding feet, feel the heat radiating off of our bodies in the 102-degree Arizona heat, sweat dripping from the sides of our faces.
Up ahead, her thick, long red braids blew behind her and her long legs strode effortlessly across the Kiwanis Park course.
This was my first encounter with the girl whose name I’d hear over and over through my high school cross country years: Sally Meyerhoff.
As a high school cross country runner, my Wednesday afternoons were spent traveling to dual races at random parks and schools. This particular year, as a sophomore who was a bit behind on training thanks to a lazier summer spent playing softball, I was on the fringe of JV and Varsity.
The red-haired freshman phenom that blew past me and lead the race the rest of the way had a talent that was simply breathtaking. I had to work at being good. For her, though she was a hard worker too, it was just natural. Race after race, I saw her name. This record broken, that record broken. She was unstoppable.
Sally Meyerhoff transferred to Mt. Pointe High School the following year, my junior year, to create an absolutely unbeatable distance team. My best friend ran relays with her and recounts how sweet, thoughtful and wonderful Sally was then. I remember just thinking “man, I really wish I could dislike her. She’s so good!”
Flipping through my high school scrapbook, I immediately found her in a picture from my 5A State Championship Track Meet from 2000. Thick, long red braids next to my long brunette ones.
While we were never friends and never had a conversation to my recollection, my heart broke when I heard the news that Sally Meyerhoff had died.
Her dreams were just starting to come true as that talent was being truly recognized. She had qualified for the 2012 Olympics; was a decorated triathlete who just received her “pro” acceptance; she took 1st place for women in the 2011 PF Chang’s Marathon in Tempe, the first American woman to ever do that.
She wrote in a blog on Sunday, March 6, just a few short days before the tragic accident that took her life:
“I cannot express how HAPPY I am with where I am in my life right now though, and how grateful I feel for being able to do what I do. I just wouldn’t trade it for anything and any time I am feeling not very motivated, I think about how miserable I feel when I am not training or doing something else I don’t LOVE. I totally and completely love this life I’m living and the most fabulous thing is that I know it’s only going to get 20 times better by the end of the year. Woo hoo baby!”
It’s bittersweet, of course. So much joy in the many accomplishments she’d had to date. So much excitement over what the near future held. Now, it’s over.
I’ve read so many stories over the past two days of the people closest to her recounting stories of how she inspired them, how she challenged them, how much fun she was.
I wish I had known the girl with the thick, long red braids back in high school. It would have been a privilege to know a champion in the making.
My deepest condolences go out to her family, friends and those whom she was closest to. You are all in my prayers.