It’s a story that captures the best-case arc of a high school athletic career so perfectly it almost feels contrived.
Molly Gwinn — a senior on the Eastmont cross country team — has grown so much as a runner she has gone from a literal also-ran to a being a competitor the team can rely to back up standout Betsy Arlt, providing needed depth and a team-first attitude in a seemingly individual sport.
Coach Gary Millard described Gwinn as a timid freshman who never struck him as someone he would one day count on to be a consistent No. 2 and a potential state competitor.
“Three years ago she started cross country and it took her half the season before she broke 30 minutes for a three-mile race. She was in the back all the time,” Millard said. “Somewhere between her sophomore and junior year, she decided she wanted to be up by the other girls and she just trained like crazy.”
And the numbers mirror her intensified dedication: Gwinn’s best time on a three-mile course over her first two years was 25 minutes, 11 seconds. When her junior year rolled around, she was around 20-21 minutes consistently, and now as a senior she regularly finishes in under 20 minutes.
Serious long-distance runners regularly cite a “runner’s high” when asked why they love doing something that a non-runner would find arduous and monotonous. Because, really, there has to be some sort of outside incentive that motivates someone to run the kind of mileage most don’t even want to drive on any given day. Gwinn is no different, saying that one of the biggest factors to her growth as an athlete was falling in love with the activity.
“I caught the bug for running, and I really enjoyed getting better and making my team better,” Gwinn said. “That was the best, being an athlete who could make my team better.”
Therein lies what makes Gwinn so valuable to this Wildcats squad — she wants to be there to help out the other girls on the team. In a sport where you spend hours by yourself, Gwinn sees great value in being a team player.
“This year all of our girls are really good friends, and that makes us a stronger team,” she said. “Really, all my improvement, I don’t see it for me — I see it for my team and making my team stronger, which really excites me and makes me really happy to be a part of such a great program.”
What is making the program so strong is the combo of Arlt and Gwinn, in addition to solid contributors Nency Cruz and Jenny Albrecht. Millard and Gwinn both said that Gwinn’s primary motivation is catching Arlt, but that hasn’t stoked any kind of jealousy or ill-will, according to the senior.
“I enjoy (Arlt) so much as a person, there’s never been a time where I think, ‘Man, I wish Betsy wasn’t as good as she is,’ ” Gwinn said. “I’m so happy for her and so happy for how much better she makes her team.”
Last spring when Arlt was training for the state track meet, Gwinn still attended every practice even though she didn’t qualify for the event.
“(Gwinn) always wants to help, wants to be in the mix of things,” Millard said. “She knew the only person left from the distance crew going to state was Betsy, and she didn’t want to let her run by herself. Also she’s driven and in her mind she saw herself getting there this year.”
But to be able to help her team, she had to first improve herself, and in a sport like cross country — in which you spend so much time inside your own mind — Gwinn found success by freeing herself from negative thoughts.
“I told my dad, I started to get good when I realized I wasn’t as bad as I thought I was,” Gwinn said. “When I saw I had some success and started seeing that I could be good, I really got into it, and it made it worth all the work.” Don’t let the runner’s glass-half-full attitude fool you — her ascension hasn’t been easy or something just anyone could do.
“I’ve never had an athlete show this much improvement, ever,” Millard said.
So as Gwinn concludes her prep career — which started in the back of the pack, and will end with her on the heels of her hyper-talented teammate — the runner knows one thing about her future: She doesn’t want the work and progress to end just yet.
“All I really know is I want to run in college,” she said. “I don’t know where yet — but I’m definitely going to run somewhere.”
While she hasn’t had any firm offers, at this point it would seem misguided to bet against her.