Lawrence to run in World Championships | NevadaAppeal.com
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Lawrence to run in World Championships

MIKE HOUSER
Appeal Sports Writer
BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Reno High School junior runner Mel Lawerence, 16, trains at the school's practice facilities on Thursday.
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RENO – There is a picture of a girl competing in the 3,000-meter steeplechase on the running Web site dyestat.com. In it she is blowing a bubble with her ever-present gum as she clears a hurdle, her brown ponytail trailing her at an angle.

Beneath the picture it says “is that gum in her mouth?”

Welcome to the world of 16-year-old Reno High School junior Mel Lawrence.

When it comes to Lawrence, a cross country and track phenom for the Huskies, the Silver State Striders running club and perhaps someday Team USA, you won’t have trouble finding someone – especially on the Internet – with something to say or write about her.

Some comments on Lawrence are more articulate than others. Take the following excerpt from an article on Lawrence by Marc Bloom (an award-winning New York Times writer) culled off the Web site theharrier.com.

Bloom was quoting Mel’s older sister Collier Lawrence, a former Reno High track and cross country standout who is now a sophomore at Washington State University.

After Collier was misdirected off the course she began to run back toward the front of the pack, where she was used to being. As told to Bloom: “‘There were 10 people ahead of me as I sprinted back to the front,’ Collier said. ‘Mel was leading as Collier pulled alongside. Mel asked her, ‘Do you want me to sing to you?’ ‘She started singing one of our team warm-up songs,’ Collier said. ‘She felt sorry for me and thought the song would make me feel better.’ The practical one, Collier told Mel, ‘Save your breath and run.'”

It’s true that Mel (a name derived from the first letter of her birth name Marie Elizabeth Lawrence) jogs to the rhythm of her own symphony, as do many of us. So why all of the attention?

Well, it’s not everyone who will be headed to Fukuoka, Japan, to compete in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships on April 1-2.

And maybe – and that’s only a maybe – even represent the United States in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.

THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS

From 2002-04, Collier Lawrence established herself as a force in cross country and track events for Reno High and the Silver State Striders, setting several regional and state records.

Take a look at the record board at Joe Keshmiri Memorial Stadium and you will see that her stadium marks still stand: in 2003 Lawrence ran the 3,200-meter event in 11 minutes, 9.48 seconds and the 1,600 in 5:03.99.

“Collier was one of the top five cross country runners ever in the state,” said Bruce Susong, coach for the Striders since 1989 and in his ninth season as the Huskies’ distance and cross country coach. “She was one of the premier cross country runners in the country and had quite a few records. She got a full-ride scholarship, so that should tell you what kind of athlete she was.”

But beginning in September 2003, another Lawrence burst upon the local running scene, when Mel – then only 13 and listed as Marie Lawrence in the newspaper – ran away with first place in all divisions in the women’s event, winning the (Reno Gazette) Journal Jog’s 8-kilometer run in Reno with a time of 31:06.

Mel began her tutelage under Susong in the sixth grade and before long had made a distinct impression on her Striders coach, who is not given to passing out compliments like candy.

“In the sixth grade (Mel) was good, but nothing special,” Susong said. “In the seventh grade I began to see she had the potential to someday be an All-American. (In the seventh grade) she was in 13th place in the National Junior Olympics, in Reno. The next year – in eighth grade – she won it.

“You saw how good she can be. She ran off and left the girl, who was a big-time runner from Nebraska. She had this talent to just take off and leave somebody in a race.”

Following her Journal Jog victory, Lawrence attended Reno High with Collier. According to a fairly recent unattributed article that Susong handed out for the purposes of this article, Collier soon had another shadow besides her own.

“As a freshman, [Mel] was regularly seen following her older sister Collier, who was a senior, in the various races around the state,” the article reads. “When the two competed in California’s Stanford Invitational, Collier won their division with the fastest time of the day, while Marie followed six seconds behind in second place. That pecking order continued in the Nevada State Championship, as Collier won while recording the same time as Marie. There was even a story that Marie was singing to calm her sister at the State meet….”

In 2003 Mel became the first runner from Nevada to win the Foot Locker Western Regional Cross Country Championships and was the runner-up in the Foot Locker National Championships.

With several state and regional high school championships already to her credit, Lawrence won the California Invitational (at Clovis), the Mt. SAC championship, and for the third year in a row finished as runner-up in the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships, in San Diego.

Then on Feb. 18, Lawrence finished in a third-place tie with Kauren Tarver, of Wrightwood, Calif., in the USA Cross Country Championships, in New York City, earning a spot on the United States junior team that will compete in Japan.

Lawrence and Tarver finished in 20:47, just two seconds shy of winner Nicole Blood, of Gansevoort, N.Y., and second-place Mckayla Plank, of Los Gatos, Calif. (20:46).

As if Lawrence’s finish wasn’t impressive enough, Susong added a further dimension to her potential when he said that she was competing after coming off a two-month layoff due to hip injury, had not competed in the indoor season – which Blood did – and had defeated Blood every other time they had met.

THE PERSON

Too often athletes are quantified by their numbers alone. If that were the case with Lawrence a simple list of her personal records would suffice: 800-meter (2:12.75); 1,600 (4:47.62); 1-mile (4:52.05); 3,000 (9:47.63) and 3,200 (10:35.02). And this would exclude 5K and 6K cross country times and unofficial bests.

But when asked about her motivation to run, Lawrence didn’t mention times, personal records and chasing medals.

“I like to go to different meets to meet people,” said Lawrence with a serene smile, as snowflakes began to swirl around Thursday at Reno High School. “I’ve made friends in New York, California, Florida…It’s fun to meet different people and stay friends with them as long as I can.”

But running also seems to serve a revolving purpose as well: emotions help fuel her running and running helps her to put out the fire of emotions.

“If I’m mad, it helps me run,” she said. “I think about frustrating things and get things in order. It’s like a second getaway.”

It’s sort of like an Eastern riddle: Why does she run?

“I think it’s something she does because she’s good at it,” Lee Lawrence, Mel’s mother, said of the chicken-or-the-egg theory.

And here’s an aphorism: It’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey.

“I’m so proud of what she’s done,” said Lee, an animal health technician, who postponed her pursuit of being a veterinarian to teach Latin, French and math at school to be close to her three children (Mel has a twin, John, who now runs for the Huskies’ boys team). “I’ve had mothers come up to me after races and say, ‘Your daughter is so nice to my daughter.’ But why shouldn’t she be? It’s the person you become through competition…It’s not just how you win, it’s how you deal with it. What you do is a body of work, it’s something you learn from running.

“With all three kids, they’re pretty on the inside as well as the outside. That’s more important than anything. Mel never wails when she loses. She’s happy for the winner and looks forward to the next event.”

Lee said Collier and Mel began running after a neighbor lost her husband and two children in a car accident.

“(The neighbor) would go out and run to get rid of the anger and frustration and sadness,” Lee said. “The kids would see her go out the back gate at the ranch and follow and run with her to cheer her up – 5 miles at a clip.”

Jack Lawrence, Mel’s father, has another memory.

“We were at Eagle Lake in Susanville, Mel was 6, and I was on the roof working on things,” Jack said. “Mel came running up to the house at blinding speed. She said that Collier and John had fallen in the lake.”

After jumping off the roof without a ladder and loading Mel and a rope into a van, Jack raced to the scene – one mile away – where Collier and John were still afloat, their fingernails torn off from trying to claw their way up the decomposed granite out of the lagoon.

“John slipped down the embankment. Collier jumped in after him,” Jack said. “Mel sped off to get help. Nobody discussed who was the hero.”

But what nobody needed to discuss later was the indisputable fact that Mel idolized her older sister, Collier, and followed in her footsteps as she began her running career.

“Collier is like my best friend,” Mel said. “We’re on the phone every night for at least an hour. ‘Guess what I did today?’ She’s really influential to me. She’s why I started running. She’s there for me.”

THE QUESTION

If Mel’s reason for running is like a Zen koan, and her success and potential is as easy to see as the Sierra Mountains on a clear day from the Washoe Valley, answering the question of whether she’ll compete in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, is as easy as adding two and two, right?

A look at Internet chatter would seem to indicate it’s so.

And Susong seems to think it’s a possibliity: “People are always asking me if I think Mel has a chance at competing in the Olympics. You never know. Of all the kids I’ve coached, she’s got the most potential – she’s the most talented. In 30 years of coaching, I never thought anybody from around here had much of a shot. She might… She’s ranking with all of the great names (Susong emphasized the word great).”

Said Lee: “I don’t push her. She can stop running tomorrow. She runs on her own steam. It drives her where she wants to go. This is her show. I think she’s scared to talk about Beijing, like it’s bad luck. She’s on the top 10 list for Beijing speculation. How often do you get a daughter that can become a champion?

“Again, being an Olympian is being more than an athlete, It’s a Greek tradition, founded with sportsmanlike conduct. It’s a higher consciousness. You’re not just an athlete; you’re a representative. You’re more than just a run-of-the mill runner.”

Jack didn’t discuss Beijing, but did mention Japan.

“I don’t care if my kids sell pencils, just as long as they are the best at it,” he said. “She doesn’t talk about Japan. It’s a jinxy thing. She doesn’t think about it. It’s not the main topic. She’s more excited about her prom dress in two weeks than Japan.”

So what about Mel?

Japan’s an open topic.

“I’m really excited,” she said. “I try not to get too excited because I have a whole month left. I like sushi. I’ll try everything there.”

But what about Beijing?

“Beijing’s not a goal,” Mel said. “In our school newspaper, it asked, Who can be in the Olympics? It said I was in the running and that I said I wanted to make it. It’s not a goal of mine. I want to take care of college first. I’ll take it a day at a time and go with the flow.”

Perhaps the most memorable line out of the movie “Titanic” was “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.” As far as Mel Lawrence competing in the Beijing Olympics goes, apparently only time – and Mel Lawrence – will reveal the secret that resides in the deep ocean of her heart.