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.”

‘The intangible I can’t coach’

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.

‘All of this is kind of surreal’

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.

Turning a setback into power

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.

JAMES ISLAND, S.C. — Hannah Vroon found herself in an unfamiliar position during last spring’s South Caroline state qualifying track and field meet. She was in second place with a couple of laps to go in the 3,200-meter race.

Vroon, a ninth grader at the time, had been among the state’s top distance runners all season. But before the race, James Island Charter High School coach Joe Eshelman had told his star runner to take it easy and not worry about winning. He wanted her to focus only on qualifying for the state meet.

“She was doing everything that I’d asked her to do, everything we talked about pre-race, but I could tell being in second place was killing her,” Eshelman said. “We didn’t want her to push it too hard and not be fresh for the state meet.”

With about 600 meters to go, Eshelman relented and permitted Vroon to go for the victory.

“She got this huge smile on her face,” Eshelman said, “and then just takes off.”

The following week, Vroon captured state titles in the 1,600 -and 3,200-meters and helped lead James Island to the Class AAAA state title. Vroon’s winning 1,600-meter time of 4 minutes, 58 seconds was the fastest by any girl in South Carolina last season and was just three seconds off the state record.

As a sophomore this past fall, Vroon won her second straight individual cross country title, running the state’s fastest time of 18:15 for the 3.1-mile course to lead the Trojans to back-to-back team titles, and in January she was named Gatorade South Carolina Girls Cross Country Player of the Year. Now, she has her sights set on winning more titles and awards during the spring track and field season, which began this month.

“Hannah is kind of an aerobic freak,” James Island cross country coach David Lee said. “She’s the strongest aerobic runner we’ve had in our program, boy or girl. She can really crank out a pace, even on some of her mileage runs. She’s ahead of a lot of our boys.”

Long before she was winning state championships on the track and in cross country, Vroon was an aspiring ballet dancer. At the age of 6, Vroon started taking ballet lessons and fell in love with dancing.

“I got totally hooked on ballet,” Vroon said. “I loved practicing, memorizing the moves and steps and being out there with my friends.”

After six years of ballet lessons and recitals, Vroon traded in her tutu for a pair of soccer cleats and made the area’s elite travel team as a standout midfielder. But the family sport was calling. Vroon’s aunts and uncles were avid runners, and in seventh grade she tried out for — and made — the high school cross country team.

“Hannah caught our eye almost immediately,” Lee said. “You could tell she was special.”

In her first race, she finished first among her teammates, including juniors and seniors. It was then that Vroon figured she might have a future in the sport. Later that season, she finished eighth in the state country championships.

“Her discipline is insane for a girl her age,” Eshelman said. “She’s really hard on herself when she’s had a bad race or a bad day. What we’ve tried to do is let her know that there are going to be bad days. Learn from those and come out stronger the next time.”

One of those bad days came in last December’s Eastbay Cross Country qualifying races in Charlotte, N.C. Coming off a state title just two weeks prior, Vroon finished 28th in a time of 18:05.

“I had been in New York all week, and it took us like 12 hours to drive down to Charlotte,” Vroon said. “It was cold during training that week up in New York, and I didn’t have the right mindset. I hit my time in the first mile and then just fell apart from there.”

Vroon said she’s using that performance as motivation during this spring’s track and field season and beyond. Lee and Eshelman, for what it’s worth, are convinced Vroon can run at the college level.

“We believe in quality over quantity,” Lee said. “We don’t want to destroy her legs in high school. She runs about 25 to 30 miles a week, so if she gets into a program and they can increase her miles, I think she can have a really good college career.”

Andrew Miller has covered high school sports since 1982. Before joining The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier in 1989, he graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism.

Running is deeply embedded in Natalie Cook’s DNA.

Cook’s mother, Melissa Gulli-Cook and her father, Andrew Cook, were All-American distance runners at Texas A&M in the early 2000s. The apple, as the cliché goes, didn’t fall too far from the tree.

Cook, of Flower Mound High School in Flower Mound, Texas, was named the 2021-22 Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Player of the Year on Wednesday. Cook joins an impressive group of former award winners who have combined for eight NCAA national championships and five bronze medals.

“I’m in total shock right now. I had no clue I was going to win this amazing award,” Cook said after receiving the trophy. “This is so crazy, it’s insane. It’s such an honor to receive this award, especially considering all the amazing athletes that have won it in the past.”

Cook only needed to look across her dining room table to find her inspiration for running.

Her mother was a champion distance runner for the Aggies, winning four Big 12 conference titles and finishing runner-up in the NCAA 5,000-meter finals in 2001 and 2002. Gulli-Cook qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in 2004 in the 5,000 -and 10,000-meter races, finishing sixth in the 6.2-mile event.

“My mom is amazing. She’s run professionally for New Balance,” Cook said.

Cook’s father is no slouch either. After earning All-American honors in cross country for Texas A&M, he now serves as Natalie’s cross country coach.

The 5-foot-5 senior won two national titles this season, capturing the Garmin RunningLane Cross Country Championships and the Eastbay Cross Country Championships in back-to-back weekends.

Cook’s winning time of 16:03.93 for the 3.1-mile course at RunningLane championships was 19 seconds faster than that of her nearest competitor and was the second-fastest 5,000-meter time in the event’s history. The Oklahoma State signee became the first prep school girl’s runner to win the two culminating national championship races in a single cross country season.

“At the season’s start, Natalie Cook was a top-20 competitor nationally,” said Doug Binder, Editor-in-Chief. “By December, she was the most dominant prep runner in the country. Her progress through the season propelled her to some amazing achievements. She scorched the RunningLane championships course and then beat the strongest field of the year at the national Eastbay Cross Country Championships, which left no doubt about who was the top gun in 2021.”

Cook also won the Texas Class 6A individual state championship in 16:32.4, leading the Jaguars to their second state title in as many years. She added victories at the Eastbay South Regional championships, the Region 1 championships and the District 6 championships, while placing third at the Woodbridge Classic earlier in the season.

“I think the race at the Woodbridge Classic really gave me a lot of confidence,” Cook said. “The final mile at the Eastbay nationals was so tough, so challenging. It wasn’t my best day. My dad really motivated me during the last mile. He was like ‘Come on, Cook. You got this.’ And that really inspired me.”

(Courtesy of Gatorade)

As a kid, Cook was more of a sprinter than a distance runner. It wasn’t until she reached middle school that she began to show off her distance running chops. As an eighth grader, Cook ran a sub 5-minute mile, and as a freshman, she finished fifth overall at the Texas state cross country championships with a time of 17:03.

“I think after I ran my first competitive mile, my parents realized that maybe I was better suited for distance running,” Cook said with a chuckle.

Cook suffered through a slew of leg injuries during her sophomore and junior seasons, including a broken foot, which made running on uneven surfaces especially painful.

As a result, Cook had to cut down on her training regimen. Unlike other elite runners, who run as many as 60 miles per week, Cook was limited to around 20 miles of training a week. She supplemented her runs with daily cardio workouts on an elliptical machine.

“She doesn’t practice on the grass because she broke her foot,” Andrew Cook said. “She does a lot of her work on the track and on the road. The big thing was just to keep her healthy this season, so we had to under-train and focus on some cardio.”

Healthy for the first time in two years, Cook is looking forward to a productive senior track season. She’s aiming to improve on her personal record mile time of 4:43 this spring.

“I prefer track season to cross country because I feel like I do better on the track,” Cook said. “I’m excited to see what I can do this season if I can stay healthy.”

Andrew Miller has covered high school sports since 1982. Before joining The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier in 1989, he graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism.