Middle school athlete opts for dance over national competition

Kaia Swegler Richmond is a girl of two passions: Cross country and dance.

While racing for Langley Middle School, she won two consecutive Cascade Conference Championships in 2015 and 2016. The eighth grader is also a devoted dancer who has spent the past seven years performing with Whidbey Island Dance Theater. She dedicates ample time to perfecting her craft in ballet throughout the week.

The two came into conflict this month when she qualified for the USATF National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships, after placing in the top 30 in sectional and regional meets in November. The meet was held on Dec. 10 in Hoover, Ala., but it coincidentally fell on the same night as one of her performances with “The Nutcracker,” which ran from Dec. 9-18.

Swegler Richmond ultimately passed on the chance to test her mettle against some of the nation’s best youth runners so she could fulfill her duties in “The Nutcracker.” Swegler Richmond said that while competing in the national meet would have been an excellent opportunity to compete with some pretty tough competition, she ultimately wanted to fulfill her obligation to the dance theater and her fellow performers. She played a cousin, soldier, woodland fairy and a flower in “The Nutcracker.”

“I have a commitment to dance and I’ve had it since August,” Swegler Richmond said. “Going to nationals would have been for myself. But, I have a team.”

Charlene Brown, artistic director of Whidbey Island Dance Theater, said the dance theater would have been behind whatever decision she made. Brown said Swegler Richmond’s choice to stick with “The Nutcracker” despite the meaningful accomplishment at a young age was a sign of maturity. She also said that Swegler Richmond is a step above other girls who are juggling dance and other activities.

“We’re really proud of her,” Brown said. “There’s not another Kaia around right now. There’s girls doing both, but she’s really aggressive in sports as well as dance.”

At Whidbey Island Dance Theater, there are eight tiers of dancers which require different levels of commitment. Swegler Richmond is a “Level 4” dancer, so she is required to take seven dance classes in a given week to advance her skills, in addition to rehearsals on weekends which take anywhere between four and six hours. Brown said the challenge of meeting the requirements isn’t easy and it requires high levels of dedication on the dancer’s part, which Swegler Richmond has.

“For a young girl to want to do both of those commitments the way she does is pretty amazing,” Brown said. “A lot of girls can’t do both, but she’s got this amazing work ethic.”

Swegler Richmond’s mother, Karen Swegler, said Swegler Richmond’s decision showed great character and that she was proud of her daughter. She added that Swegler Richmond’s two passions often rival each other, but not in a negative way.

“Whatever she’s doing in that moment, she’ll tell you that’s her favorite,” Swegler said.

Swegler Richmond said she gets a similar feeling from both dancing and running.

“Running is kind of like a freedom,” Swegler Richmond said. “There’s people with you, but they can’t control what you’re doing. It’s the same thing with dance, you’re just out there doing it. You can think about stuff, but you don’t have to.”

Swegler Richmond is setting her sights high in cross country, with a goal of making it to the Olympics someday. She attributed her success thus far in the sport to Elizabeth Donnelly, a junior cross country runner at South Whidbey High School, and Jack Terhar, her training coach and a former Langley Middle School cross country coach.

Donnelly said Swegler Richmond is capable of achieving just about anything she sets her mind to if she maintains her work ethic.

“I think she works so hard and she has such a great attitude,” Donnelly said. “She seems to love it. I think she’ll go a long way with that.”