CROSS COUNTRY: Gordon Lee's dynamic duo wins Walker awards

The 2018 Walker County Boys’ Runner of the Year, Ian Goodwin, Gordon Lee (Soph.) and the 2018 Walker County Girls’ Runner of the Year, Gracie O’Neal, Gordon Lee (Jr.). / Scott Herpst

The Gordon Lee High School cross country program has made a name for itself over the past few years and the Navy-and-White added to that ever-growing tradition this past season.

For the second straight year, the top male and female runner in the county came from Chickamauga. This is the second year in a row that Gracie O’Neal has earned Walker County Girls’ Runner of the Year honors, while the title of Walker County Boys’ Runner of the Year had a new recipient in 2018 in Ian Goodwin.

“It’s crazy because I really didn’t expect it again,” O’Neal said, “but it’s cool.”

O’Neal said the 2018 season “was a different type of year” than she’s had in the past. However, it was still good enough to average 20:21 for the season and good enough to win the Walker County championship, the Region 6-A Public School championship and a second consecutive Class A Public School state championship.

She picked up three more top-10 finishes along the way and helped the Lady Trojans to the region runner-up trophy and a fourth-place finish at state.

“(This past season), was never super-good or super-bad,” she explained. “I never felt super-amazing about it because I never got my times really to where I wanted them to be. But the ultimate goal was the state championship. I just knew I had to get there and once I got there I knew what I had to do to win it.”

O’Neal said some injuries suffered in training over the summer set her back early in the season, although she added that her training in the offseason was fairly consistent with what she’s done in the past.

“I have to make sure I’m taking care of everything, including recovery, to get to the times I want to get to,” she continued. “In running, there is never a point to where you are exactly where you want to be. You can always improve and get better and each day your main goal should be to get better. That’s just my mindset every day and on every run.”

She said being a senior next year will also create a different mindset.

“I’ll be in a position to where people will be looking up to me for encouragement or just an idea of what to do,” she added. “I’m just going to have to step up and focus on my character, my work ethic and everything else to make sure I’m setting a good example for the rest of the team.”

“Gracie is Gracie,” GL head coach Nathan Burns said. “She’s phenomenal. She works hard and she’s super dedicated. She put in tons of miles over the summer to get better. In her mind, she didn’t think she had the year that she should have had, but if she’s not setting records, she thinks she’s not doing her best. Still, I’m not surprised that she won another state championship.”

For Goodwin, it was an injury to senior teammate and team pace-setter Jasper Wilson that forced the sophomore to assume an even bigger role as a team leader, on and off the course.

“It was a big year for me,” he said. “Jasper has always been the guy and our times on the track have always been close. We worked really hard together over the summer and really in the past year.

“It was definitely a blow to the team when Jasper got hurt because he’s been such a big part of things here. I knew I really needed to get this team to where it needed to be to make up the ground that we lost with him getting hurt. He was able to come back towards the end of the year, though, and it was good to have him back.”

Goodwin’s average time of 18:04 was an improvement over his average of 18:20 a year ago, although his season-best of 16:39 was a full minute faster than his season-best a year ago. That 16:39 came in the opening race of the season at Ridge Ferry in Rome, where he not only finished fourth overall, but set a new GL school record in the process.

He went on to win Walker County and Region 6-A titles before taking sixth at state. He also led his team to an region team championship and a fourth-place trophy at state.

“I thought I had a little bit of an inconsistent year,” he admitted. “We had a stretch where we had several races right in a row and I over-trained a little. I had a couple of bad races where I was running in the 18’s, but I had several good races throughout the year where I was in the high 16’s and low 17’s. Plus, I got the school record.”

He credited his success to just plain old hard work.

“I’ve been on the right training plan, including lifting and eating right,” he explained. “That and putting in a lot of miles. I put in 433 miles over the summer and it feels good to see your hard work be recognized.”

“Ian definitely earned everything he got this year,” Burns said. “He worked his tail off all summer long. He put in tons and tons of miles from the end of cross country last year to the start of this year and it really showed by him getting that school record right off the bat. He’s also super-dedicated to the sport and he just loves to run, plus he has very good leadership skills and it’s all starting to paying off for him.

“It’s great to know we’ll have both of them coming back (next year) and, hopefully, we’ll put some other people with them and maybe get a team title or two next year. That’s the goal.”