Having won all of their meets coming into the Cascade Conference Cross Country Championships, Langley Middle School runners Aiden Donnelly and Kaia Swegler-Richmond would have been surprised if they didn’t take home the title.
They weren’t wrong.
For the second year in a row, the Cougar boys and girls cross country teams won the Cascade Conference Championships on Oct. 20 at River Meadows Park in Granite Falls.
Eighth-graders Thomas Simms and Kaia Swegler-Richmond won the boys and girls divisions, respectively. Simms ran the 1.74-mile course in 10 minutes and 30 seconds while Swegler-Richmond finished it in 11 minutes and 11 seconds.
Eighth-grade boy Riley McVay finished just behind Simms in second place. A host of other boys and girls placed in the top 10, including eighth-grade girls Serena McClain, Natalie Rodriguez and Laila Gmerek and eighth-grade boys Cooper Ullman, Aiden Donnelly and Aidan O’Brien.
Mud and rain were perhaps the biggest obstacles for runners, Donnelly said, who finished the race in 11:01.19.
“It’s a lot different than running regularly,” Donnelly said. “On the hills, it’s slippery and if you don’t get enough speed you’re going to fall down and slip.”
He also felt the middle-of-the-pack runners were the unsung heroes of the day.
The quiet and reserved Swegler-Richmond said her winning race was a combination of hard work and natural ability. She won the league meet as a seventh-grader in 2015.
The Cougars had around 30 kids on the team this year, which fostered a competitive environment, assistant coach Andy Davis said.
“When you have those numbers, you’re never running by yourself,” Davis said. “You can compete at practice and challenge each other.”
The team has a knack for making the atmosphere light and fun, but also buckles down to accomplish its goals when necessary. This is true when the Cougars practice the “Graveyard Run,” a two-plus mile course that has runners travel around the outer reaches of the city and next to the Langley Cemetery. Their reward: Popsicles, or what they call “Frozen broccoli.”
They’re also all-inclusive, Davis said. The Cougar runners have been recruiting in their school to get more kids to turn out for cross country.
“They get excited about something and they want their friends to be part of it,” Davis said.
The Cougars ran at a mixture of league meets and large invitationals. Donnelly and Swegler-Richmond said they were most proud of the team when they competed well against teams three to four times the size of their school. This was true at the Nike Hole In The Wall XC Invitational at Lakewood High School. The Cougar girls team placed third out of nine teams while the boys placed fourth out of 12.
Davis commended runner eighth-grader Olivia Varga for her improvements over the season, as well as O’Brien and McVay for their leadership and effort. He also said that Luc Gandarias, a blind eighth-grader, was a motivation to everyone.
“That’s amazing,” Davis said.
Asked what he thought the formula was to winning a championship, Davis said it includes hard work, conditioning and not overthinking things. Enjoying the moment also has its benefits, which is something he saw happen frequently.
“To tell you the truth, they’re so young that they just go out and do the best they can,” Davis said. “I don’t see too much stress leading up to races. They’re just being 12 or 13-year-olds. It’s pretty cool.”