From Paul Merca
FUKUOKA, Japan-They may not have the international savvy, credentials, or moxie of some of their older teammates, but the four high school athletes on Team USA's junior squad are more than up to the challenge of competing against the world's best under-20 cross country runners at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Saturday and Sunday at Umi-no-Nakamichi Seaside Park here in the western Japanese seaport.
For Nicole Blood, Kauren (pronounced 'kor-RINN') Tarver, Marie Lawrence, and Michael Eaton, all of whom have dominated competition at the regional and national high school level in the United States, the jump to international level competition from high school isn't a daunting a task to them. For the quartet, it's just a stepping stone to what they hope will be a long and successful career in the sport.
Blood, who recently moved to Simi Valley, Calif., with her father from Saratoga, New York, has been in the forefront of American prep distance running since she was a seventh grader. She's been one of a handful of young women who have competed all four years in the Foot Locker national cross country championships. She's also won numerous New York state titles at various distances in indoor, outdoor track, and cross country, and the USA national junior crown in Carson, Calif., at 5000 meters last year in 16:30.90.
Blood competed for Team USA at last year's Junior Pan-Am Games in Windsor, Canada in the 5000, earning a silver medal.
She added to her impressive prep resume the USA national junior cross country crown on February 18th in her final race as a New York state resident in a time of 20:45 at historic Van Cortlandt Park on February 18th.
Kauren Tarver from Wrightwood, Calif., earned her way to Fukuoka by finishing third at the national championships with her third place finish in 20:47, only two seconds behind Blood. She was the top American finisher in her national team debut on March 11th at the NACAC Cross Country Championships in Clermont, Florida, placing third over 4k in 14:41.
The fifteen-year old Tarver, who is the youngest member of Team USA, finished fifth at last fall's Foot Locker nationals. She's won the last two California state CIF and Southern Section Division II cross country championships, becoming only one of eleven girls in California history to win at least two state harrier titles. In 2005, Tarver finished second in the California state meet at 800 meters, and placed third in the 1600.
Marie Lawrence, a junior at Reno High School in Nevada, qualified for her second national team and first World Cross Country Championships squad by placing fourth in 20:47. During the 2005 cross country season, Marie earned her third straight runner-up finish at the Foot Locker national high school championships in San Diego.
In 2005, she also won the USA junior title at 3000 meters, running a personal best of 9:44.85 in Carson, Calif., and finished second in the 3000 steeplechase. Like Blood, Marie also competed for Team USA at the Junior Pan Ams in Canada, finishing fourth in the 3000m.
Michael Eaton, a senior at Greenwood High in Bowling Green, Kentucky, earned the final qualifying spot on Team USA following his sixth-place finish at the USA Cross Country Championships at Van Cortlandt Park last month over the eight-kilometer distance, significantly longer than the 5-kilometer prep distance.
Eaton enters these world championships on a bit of a roll, setting personal bests at 1500m (4:00.37), 3000m (8:37.87), and 2 miles (9:10.50) this past indoor season. Last fall, he won the Foot Locker South Regional harrier crown, only to finish 13th in the national finals.
For Eaton, the lone male high schooler on Team USA, the thought of being on the squad with runners who are competing either at the professional or collegiate level can be a bit intimidating; however, he says that once you get to know them on a personal level, they're just human, and all are willing to help you.
"You have people on this team who do this for a living, then you have some of the top collegiate freshmen in the country on the junior team, then there's me, a two-time Foot Locker finalist. However, every one I've met on the team has been very nice."
"What I've picked up on from being on the team this week is that this is something I'd like to do for a living. You get to go on trips like this, you get stuff from your sponsors, and everyone treats you nice. It's not like working-it's something I'd like to do."
While there's a bit of intimidation in being on the same squad with names like Adam Goucher, Ryan Hall, Blake Russell, and Carrie Tollefson, Lawrence stated that it's "really cool" to be a part of Team USA, and more importantly, find out that these athletes are regular people off the race course.
In the days leading to the start of the World Cross Country Championships, Blood, Tarver, and Lawrence joined their more accomplished teammates, many of whom they've followed either in running publications, on television, or on the web, on training runs, and even on an excursion to the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine.
"It's an awesome opportunity to be around these runners, and to get to see a different culture (here in Japan)," Nicole said.
All three of Team USA's high school women were treated to a talk on Thursday from 2004 US Olympian Colleen DeReuck, and 2005 USA national 10-k champion Katie McGregor. Each relayed their thoughts on competing on the world stage, and gave advice on dealing with adversity.
Summing up what DeReuck and McGregor discussed to the juniors, Tarver said, "The one word of advice that both Colleen and Katie gave that really sticks out is to relax and have fun doing what you're doing."