A dad’s story: From starting line to team champ

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(Editor’s note: Aaron Fleming is the cross country assistant coach at Mid-Prairie High School. His daughters, River Valley All-Conference runners Ana and Abby, are on the Golden Hawks’ varsity squad that will attempt to win its fourth consecutive state championship Saturday in Fort Dodge.)

I remember my daughter Ana’s freshman state championship meet like it was yesterday.

She looked so small at the starting line, just a little waif next to all the grown-up juniors and seniors. It didn’t seem fair that such a scrawny kid should have to compete against girls who were two or three years older.

Welcome to high school competition, kid. Good luck.

She was nervous as she stood on that starting line, but you wouldn’t have known it if you weren’t her mom or dad. She was intensely competitive and keenly emotional, but she also kept most of that under the surface. Oh, there was a flash of rage two weeks before at the conference meet when a big senior competitor gave her a couple of hard elbows in the ribs. Ana took off after that, a snarl on her face, and beat the senior by 20 seconds. And sometimes when she was running particularly well, moving up through the pack and passing competitors one after another, she’d get a smile of sheer joy on her face that looked completely out of place among all the other panting and grimacing athletes.

Mid-Prairie head coach Mark Hostetler has called Ana one of the best natural racers he’s ever seen. The style Mark teaches is this: start steady, move up, finish hard. Simple enough, but since most other teams take off like crazy at the start it means you’re usually behind your competition for the first mile. Coming from behind requires a lot of discipline and toughness from athletes as young as 14 years old. It’s all the more difficult at State, where the stakes are highest and youngsters give way to adrenaline and sprint off the starting line like it’s a 400-meter track race instead of a 5,000-meter cross country race.

Ana raced to perfection that day. She started off all nerves of steel, pacing like a veteran. Then her smile broke out as she moved up, picking off opponents one after another. The smile turned to grim determination as the race wore on, and she finished 10th overall, an All-State performance that helped the Golden Hawks to their first state championship.

With the race over, Ana’s emotions finally spilled out. She launched herself into my arms and burst into tears. I was shocked and more than a little confused. We just won state, what’s this crying about? Is this happy crying or sad crying or I love you because you’re the best dad in the world crying?

I’m still not sure, but although I’m as baffled as any other dad might be, I am a hugger so I’ll take it!

You could say running is in Ana’s blood. It’s certainly a family tradition. I met her mom, Melissa, on the high school cross country team at Iowa Mennonite School in 1992. We were coached by Mark Hostetler before he moved to Mid-Prairie as head coach.

Ana’s older brother, David, was a four-year letter-winner at Mid-Prairie. Abby, a freshman, finished 14th in her first conference championship and seventh in the state qualifier. Melissa has been a middle school cross country coach for eight years, cultivating the young careers of a string of Mid-Prairie greats.

Ana showed talent early on. She placed fourth at the statewide middle school meet as a seventh-grader, then brought home the gold medal a year later. Her competitive drive was obvious. She loved running because she loved competing … and winning.

Ana’s freshman season was a great start to her high school career. But just like a cross country course, her career has had twists and turns, ups and downs, joys and heartaches. She’s been struck by the injury bug a couple of times, and had enough discouragement to make her think seriously about quitting. She fought past the discouragement, though, and through it she has grown into a powerful young woman. She has learned to speak up more, to lead, to share her mind, and express her feelings out loud. She has tackled other challenges, like trying out for jazz band, joining choir, getting a job and applying to top-notch colleges.   

           The personal growth has been timely for her running. Last spring Ana developed a new injury, a stress fracture that forced her to cross train all summer while her team ran and gained ground on her. As a consequence, her senior season hasn’t been everything she might have dreamed of. And yet, she is quietly chasing a remarkable achievement, something that could never have happened if she had quit somewhere along the way: if the Mid-Prairie girls win again Saturday, Ana will be the first girl in school history, and only the 8th all-time in the state, to run on four consecutive state championship teams. 

I know she would also love to finish with another All-State performance. Whether that happens or not, I know she’ll be racing the Mid-Prairie way: starting steady, moving up, and finishing hard … and smiling while she does it.

I look back in my memory and I see a little girl standing on the starting line. Saturday I’ll look forward and see a young woman. And at the end of the race, this time I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be Dad who bursts into tears.

Aaron Fleming is in his 16th year as assistant cross country coach at Mid-Prairie. If you’re cheering for Ana, she’ll smile wider if you pronounce it Ah-nah, not Anna.

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