Irene Riggs may have been born into a family of swimmers, but from a young age, she loved to run. She didn’t have a walking speed, her father Vic says.
Sometimes, it was to her detriment. “I would often fall,” Irene admits.
One of those tumbles Vic vividly remembers occurred at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. An enthusiastic Irene stumbled when trying to race to a platform a couple of inches off the ground and chipped her two front teeth.
But each time Irene fell, she got back up, showcasing a grit and determination that years later have propelled her to national prominence.
Back then, running was an activity for Irene, a way to expel energy. Irene’s parents were elite swimming coaches and her oldest sister, Abigail, was a star in the pool, later competing for Vic at West Virginia University. When Irene’s future coach, Mike Ryan, first met Irene in the fourth grade, cross-country star was not something he envisioned for her.
But Irene soon found outlets to channel that desire, most notably through the organization Girls on the Run. Middle-school races followed, and by the time she finished her freshman year, Irene’s desire to constantly be in motion had developed into a passion for distance racing.
Today, Irene is the best in the country. The Morgantown High (West Virginia) senior and Stanford commit clocked the second-fastest 5K time in girls’ cross country history two weeks ago and followed it up this past weekend with a first-place finish at Nike Cross Nationals.
Just like she did as a youngster, getting back up after each fall, Irene overcame setbacks along the way, including a freak foot injury that kept her sidelined for weeks this fall.
“Her competitive drive is what separates her compared to other talented runners that I’ve coached,” Ryan says. “She’s always had that drive to not shy away from running against the best and racing against the best.”
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It’s a roughly seven-hour drive from Cary, N.C. to Morgantown, W.V., and in November 2019, Irene cried the entire ride home. A high school freshman at the time, Irene had just missed out on qualifying for the Cross Country Nationals. She would instead stay home while her teammates Lea Hatcher and Athena Young, both now with Division I programs, traveled to Oregon for the national meet.
“I would be OK and then I would think about it again,” Irene says. “I would start crying again.”
Irene had a stellar freshman season, running a sub-18-minute 5K at the regional meet in North Carolina. She wanted more, though. Going into her sophomore year, the sting of missing out on nationals kept Irene motivated. Even when the coronavirus pandemic took away opportunities for Irene to compete in national meets, she dedicated herself to getting better.
“That’s the intangible I can’t coach, that personal self-desire,” Ryan said. “She wanted to do more, she wanted to go faster, she wanted to go longer.”
Irene swam competitively through middle school, and she credits that experience with building up her endurance. By the time the high school swimming season rolled around her ninth-grade year, she needed a break.
Her time as a competitive swimmer was done.
Vic Riggs is an expert in the pool. He swam at Cal-Berkeley and has coached various club and college swimming teams, including guiding the men’s and women’s swimming programs at West Virginia since 2007. When it comes to cross country, though, he’s a relative novice.
But Vic could see his daughter’s emerging potential as her times began to drop. It all clicked for him last year at the Eastbay Cross Country Championships in San Diego when Irene nabbed 14th place, good enough for an All-American nod.
“I realized her competitiveness was going to take her to the next level,” Vic said.
Through her running, Irene has carved out a niche for herself. There are several talented swimmers in the family, including her twin, Caroline, who will swim at Yale next year. Irene enjoys excelling in a different sport.
“We do so much together, and it’s nice to have this little thing,” Irene said.
Vic has also relished the chance to simply be a dad, not a coach, and learn along the way.
“It was really cool to watch that development over the four years,” Vic said. “Every once and a while I would ask, ‘Are you having fun?’ She would always say yes. That was always our main thing.
“All of this is kind of surreal and unexpected. We never really expected this level of running.”
The journey, though, hasn’t been without bumps in the road.
For someone who relishes motion, inactivity gnawed at Irene. When her foot got run over by a car this September, Irene’s daily route changed. While no bones were broken, the foot was badly bruised. She was in a boot for about a month and reduced to cross-training in the pool to maintain her aerobic fitness.
“I did have to take some down time, my foot had gone through such trauma,” Irene said. “When it’s in the middle of your season, you just feel like each day you are losing fitness.”
When Irene’s foot healed, she then had to regain the rhythm of her stride. Through it all, her goals of competing for national titles didn’t change.
“The focus was always on the end of the season championship race,” Ryan said.
Irene first broke a state championship course record by more than 45 seconds, clocking a 16:32, well under her goal of sub-17 minutes. With Irene leading the way, Morgantown captured a fourth consecutive state title.
A month of training followed, leading up to the Nike Southeast Regionals in late November. While Irene tries not to fixate on running certain times heading into races, she had hopes of clocking a time in the 16:20 range. Even she wasn’t prepared for the number she saw as she approached the finish line.
Not only did she break Katelyn Tuohy’s course record of 16:22.8, but she also clocked the second-fastest 5K time in girls’ cross-country history, finishing in 16:02.01.
“Literally a year ago, I ran that exact same course,” Irene says. “If anything, it was muddier this year and I ran 17:17 last year. I dropped one minute and 15 seconds this year. That was a little shocking.”
Four years earlier, Irene sobbed in the car ride home from regionals, distraught over missing out on nationals.
“I put that mental picture of her running up the hill her freshman year versus what I saw her senior year,” Vic says. “She was moving.”
But Irene wasn’t finished. A switch had flipped in her head before the season, when she told herself she could win a national championship. That’s exactly what she did on the first Saturday of December with a time of 16:40.9, nearly 14 seconds ahead of the next closest runner.
“To come back and accomplish my initial goal, it was really special for me,” Irene says.
Next up is the track season — she focuses on the 1,600 and 3,200-meters — and then Stanford. It will be hard for Irene to be so far away from Caroline and the rest of her family, but she’s found a second home with the Cardinal.
“They said you’ll always be sad to leave, even though you’re excited to see your family,” Irene says. “You just love it so much.”
Irene is ready for that next chapter, to see what she can accomplish in cross country and track and field. There will be new goals and setbacks, but there will be one constant: running.
As a young child, Irene ran everywhere. Years later, she’s still on the move.
“I think that shows,” Vic says, “her true love for what she does.”
Phillip Suitts is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. He has worked at a variety of outlets, including The Palm Beach Post and Southeast Missourian, and done a little bit of everything from reporting to editing to running social media accounts. He was born in Atlanta but currently lives in wintry Philadelphia. Follow Phillip on Twitter @PhillipSuitts.