NEW WESTMINSTER — Grace Fetherstonhaugh had a sizzling summer on the track.
On Saturday, she hopes to finish off a fantastic fall on the trails.
Coming off the summer of her life as a double-medalist at the Canadian Under-20 track and field championships as a 16-year-old, the New Westminster Hyacks’ senior harrier is hoping that her recent history of performing big in big races continues as she heads to Vancouver’s Jericho Beach Park on Saturday morning for the B.C. High School Cross-Country Championships.
“That’s been the big thing for me,” began Fetherstonhaugh earlier this week when asked to describe the confidence she has gleaned over just the past four months of her running career.
“After you see yourself break boundaries that you didn’t think you could, you really want to see how much more you can improve.”
As all of that pertains to Saturday’s cross-country finals, Fetherstonhaugh is among the top returning finishers from a season ago.
With 2016 champion Hannah Bennison of Vernon now graduated to a collegiate career at NCAA Div. 1 Providence, and senior Taryn O’Neill (Lake Country-George Elliott), last season’s fourth-place finisher, feeling under the weather, the favourite heading into the proceedings will be Justine Stecko of Victoria’s Oak Bay Secondary.
Last season, the Grade 11 Stecko finished sixth, and a victory Saturday would make her the first Bays’ female to win the race since Justine Johnson won the last of her three straight titles in 2008.
“Taryn is feeling sick right now, so she’s not going to be there,” said Fetherstonhaugh, “and that’s too bad because I know she would have had a really good race.
“But there’s Justine Stecko, Annika Austin (Kitsilano, 16th), Madsion Heisterman (8th, Brentwood College), and so many others,” she continued of the class of seniors expected to brave the elements when the girls race begins at 11:30 a.m.
Last season, among that group, Heisterman was eighth and Fetherstonhaugh 10th.
And when Fetherstonhaugh says she would love to see her cross-country results feed off the momentum of her summer on the track, it’s with good reason.
In early June, as a Grade 11, she set the new B.C. high school championship meet standard with a gold-medal run in the 1,500m steeplechase (4:54.81).
She later claimed bronze in both the 1,500m (4:32,80) and 3,000m (9:51.03) races (read about it here), in the latter finishing behind winner Desirae Ridenour of Cowichan and silver medalist O’Neill.
She then took all of that to another level in early July in Ottawa, where as a rising senior, she earned podium honours in both of her races, claiming bronze medals in both the 3,000m steeplechase and the 3,000m, despite being part a field that included rising first- and second-year collegians.
“I had the (qualifying) time for the steeplechase, so I wanted to do it (at the Under-20s) and see what would happen,” laughed Fetherstonhaugh who is coached at Royal City Track and Field by Sean Dixon, “but what ended up happening is that I was actually a lot more happy with what I did in the 3000m.”
Consider that Fetherstonhaugh had yet to run a sub-10:00 3,000m before the start of her Grade 11 year, and it’s clear that she finished her outdoor season as one of the nation’s rising middle-distance stars.
The 9:51 she ran at B.C. high schools was a personal best, but she destroyed that mark in a swift field led by fellow Class of ’19 star Brogan MacDougall.
Fetherstonaugh finished third in a time of 9:33.71, some 18 seconds better than her previous best.
Courtney Hufsmith of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies finished second (9:32.80) while MacDougall, the Kingston, Ont., native, ran a sizzling 9:21.84 to win in decisive fashion.
Fetherstonhaugh also ran a 10:25.90 in the 3,000m steeplechase to finish third.
Later in the summer, she traveled to Brandon, Man., and competing in her own age group at the Canadian Legion championships, she took gold in both the 2,000, steeplechase and the 3,000m.
Still, her U-20 experience sits at the forefront.
“There were girls there who were 16, 17 and 18 so there were still quite a few my age,” said Fetherstonhaugh. “It was a really cool experience to be around the older athletes, because they had senior nationals going on at the same time. I just loved being in that atmosphere.”
Clearly, 2017 has been Grace Fetherstonhaugh’s breakthrough year, and it’s led to increased interest from university programs.
“I am still deciding where I want to go for university, but it has definitely opened up opportunities for me,” she smiles. “So I am excited for next year too. But as far as where I might go, I’m still in the deciding stage.”
But most importantly, she’s at the stage and the place that every high school senior with a love of the track and trails would love to be.
“I didn’t expect my track season to go as well as it did last year,” she says, “so for me, this is all definitely an ideal scenario.”
As Fetherstonaugh was being interviewed along the sidelines of Mercer Stadium earlier this week, she concluded things by making mention of her school’s football team, the Hyacks, who happen to be ranked No. 1 in B.C. AAA and were just getting set to begin practice.
When it’s suggested to her that a great picture for this story would be to have her hoisted on the shoulders of two of the team’s burly linemen, she needed no convincing.
“That would be fun,” she said.
And, for someone who has proven herself to be one of the best young middle-distance runners in the nation, symbolically fitting.
The action at Jericho Beach Park begins with the para-race at 9:30 a.m.
Junior girls (10 a.m.) and junior boys (10:45 a.m.) follow, with the senior girls race beginning at 11:30 a.m. and the senior boys wrapping up the day at 12:15 p.m.
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