Kirsten McMichael remembers her first competitive race well.
McMichael was 8 years old and running a race around a track. As she rounded the oval, her mother was singing to her.
She also remembers her finish.
"I finished last," McMichael said.
Almost a decade later, it's McMichael who is leaving everyone else behind.
A Ringgold junior, she won her third consecutive Washington County cross country meet. Earlier this season, she also won the Big South championship at Mingo Park, which really impressed her mother and Ringgold coach, Jennifer Lejeune-McMichael.
"As a mother, I was proud of her," Lejeune-McMichael said. "As a coach, I was really impressed. She led the race from start to finish. She ran all alone and the second-place finisher, I think, was 1:40 behind her. I was so impressed that day."
She ran a 19:31 at the Big South meet, which broke her own Mingo Park course record of 19:47 that she recorded her sophomore season. Before McMichael broke the record, it stood for 20 years and was held by none other than Lejeune-McMichael, a state qualifier in the 1980s when she ran for Ringgold.
"I was really thrilled," McMichael said. "I was really close to it all season and I finally broke it. It was my goal since eighth grade."
Eighth grade was also the first time McMichael beat her mother in a race. It happened to be in Pittsburgh's Great Race, when Kirsten finished fourth and Jennifer took fifth.
"She doesn't let me forget that," said Lejeune-McMichael.
Lejeune-McMichael and Kirsten's father, Ron McMichael, who is Ringgold's athletic director, have played big roles in Kirsten's running success. Both parents ran cross country in college -- Jennifer at California University of Pennsylvania and Ron at Clarion University. The McMichaels live in Nottingham.
So both not only can set up a training schedule for McMichael, but both also know how well she ran a race and how she can improve.
"Kids can go home and tell their parents how they did, and the parents may not know if it was good or not," Kirsten McMichael said. "But when I tell my parents my time, they know exactly what my paces are and how I ran."
McMichael also has a full-time running partner in her mother. The pair is often seen running at Mingo Park, or even on the beach during vacation.
Lejeune-McMichael said that she and her husband never pushed their passion on their daughter. But the fact that Kirsten shares the same joy for the sport is special for Jennifer.
"It brings tears to my eyes to know that the joy and passion [of running] is something we share together," Lejeune-McMichael said. "It's something we can carry through life, whether it's competitive or not."
McMichael found out just how much she loved the sport last season. After she didn't perform up to expectations at the 2012 Tri-State Invitational, Lejeune-McMichael knew something may be wrong with her daughter's leg.
So they went to the doctor, who said McMichael might have tendonitis. She continued to run, but after another disappointing finish at the WPIAL Class AAA meet, where she failed to qualify for the PIAA championships after making it to states a freshman, she went to get another opinion on her injury.
This time she got a different diagnosis: a stress fracture in her fibula. It's a non-weight bearing bone, so it wasn't as serious as if it were the tibia. Even still, McMichael didn't run for three months.
"At first I said, 'Now by not running on it at all, you mean just not sometimes, right?' McMichael said. "It was hard. I guess I didn't realize how much a part of my life running was. You don't realize how much you love something until you can't do it."
McMichael stayed in shape during her time off by swimming and biking. She returned for the second half of the indoor track season, where she qualified for the indoor track championships.
Around the same time, Chatham University named her the winner of the Patience Blayden Spirit of Sport Award in the high school sophomore category. It's presented to athletes who exhibit success in the classroom, on the field and in the community.
In addition to being a successful three-sport athlete (cross country, indoor track and outdoor track), she has been the captain of all three teams since she was a freshman and is a 4.0 student.
"We were surprised and excited she won [the award]," Lejeune-McMichael said. "It's a huge accomplishment."
Now McMichael has some more accomplishments she would like to reach before her career at Ringgold is over.
"I want to get my record time under 19:15, I want to win the county meet all four years, I want to medal at Tri-State and want to qualify for states again," McMichael said. "I just want to show people what I can do."
And to think, less than a decade ago, she was the one finishing at the back of the pack.
First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM