By Sophia Ricco
Walt Whitman’s girls indoor track team is close to wrapping up its season, but still has one extraordinary runner racing her way to the state and national championships.
This season saw the smallest team head coach Rufus Shepard has ever coached with only 22 girls, most underclassmen. Many individual athletes triumphed this season at meets, particularly Whitman freshman Gianna Paul.
Joining the spring track and field team as an eighth grader, Paul broke the school’s record in the 400-meter run. Her time – 57.45 seconds – was a personal best that qualified her for the national championship.
“It’s been great just watching her develop as she’s grown over the years,” Shepard said. “I think the sky’s the limit for her.”
In her first year competing with the winter track team, Paul set a school record for the 300m dash with a time of 40.55 seconds and 600m dash with 1:39.66. She also competes in long jump where she set a 16’10” school record.
“She has improved every race since she started winter track, she just gets faster and faster,” Shepard said. “I’ve been coaching for 20 years and she’s not only the most coachable athlete, but she also has an impeccable work ethic.”
Every day at practice, the coaches give runners a workout that conditions them for particular events.
“For our sprinters, we do sprint drills, high knees, A and B skips, a lot of short sprints to build their strength,” Shepard said. “For our distance runners, we put in at least 4-5 miles a day, so we’re talking about 25-30 miles a week to build endurance.”
Shepard finds Paul is a very “self-motivated” athlete, who wastes no time getting through the drills, even doing extra if she finishes early.
“Coach would say that I’m hard working and that I get the job done,” Paul said. “I can see my dedication to the sport growing as I run at more meets.”
Paul will compete at the Long Island Elite meet this Saturday against the best runners from Nassau and Suffolk counties, as preparation for the state championship meet on March 2. She is a prospect to place within the top six for the 300m dash and earn All-State honors.
Nationally, she has the ability to place within the top three for the freshmen 400m dash, her coach said.
“It’s great when your youngest athlete is the best on the team, but it would be great if she had a mentor, like we’ve had in the past,” Shepard said. “But this is a testament to how great she is, because she does a lot of this on her own without having someone to look up to on the team.”
With a young team, Shepard selected sophomores Grace Weigele and Priya Katwala as his captains. He considers both strong leaders and motivators.
Weigele also takes the spot as top distance runner. In the 3,000m race, she’s run a personal best 11:44.
Standing out as the top jumper, Emily Gorecki has cleared 4’8” in high jump.
Paul’s training partner, Jessica Doddo, excels in the 300m dash and the girls motivate one another, Shepard said.
Many of the girls will keep track of their progress through “Distance Time Racing” that tracks their times and ranking.
“I think this is a big motivation, because they want to self-improve, it’s all about looking at the numbers and getting better,” Shepard said.
Overall, this season has been a time for the team to rebuild, work on technique and boost their stamina and endurance.
“We use the winter season to fine tune for the spring season,” Shepard said. “The spring season tends to be more competitive. We compete against teams one-on-one in dual meets.”
Looking forward to the spring season, Shepard will be able to pick up where he left off with the team as the girls outdoor track and field coach, while gaining competitive athletes.
“We start off the season with personal goals and time trials, to see where the girls are at the moment with their events and take it from there,” Shepard said. “We’ll try to reflect back on those goals every month.”