By David Krueger Herald Writer
Amy-Eloise Neale is one of the top high school cross country runners in the nation. Thanks in large part to her presence in the lineup, the Glacier Peak girls are ranked No. 1 in the state coaches poll and No. 11 in the nation by ESPN.
But Neale, a senior, is not as worried about living up to the lofty expectations as she is concerned with enjoying her final year of high school.
“It’s exciting in a way that it’s the last season,” she said. “It’s a little more pressure as a senior. It just really sinks in that this is your last shot at state and nationals and really just having fun with what you’re doing. It’s kind of bittersweet.”
All Neale’s done up to this point is win two individual state cross country titles — as a freshman and a sophomore — and help the Grizzlies capture their first team title in 2010.
“She comes in first all the time, which is helpful in cross country,” Glacier Peak head coach Dan Parker said. “She has her eyes set on competing for the state championship.”
Parker first heard about Neale when she was running in elementary school. He knew then she was going to be a force.
“I knew about her as a fifth-grader,” Parker said. “She was running sub-six minute miles at that point in the fifth grade. I had an inkling she might be decent.”
Neale, whose family moved to the United States from England when she was 2, has been running since she was a 6-year-old. She went to her first national meet when she was 8, but didn’t train as hard as some of the other competitors.
“I just went because it was close, down in Eugene, and I qualified,” she said. “Then I learned that I was good at it and I really learned that I loved the long distances.”
Another person who saw considerable potential in Neale was Frank Dauncey. Currently an assistant cross country coach with the Grizzlies, Dauncey was running the Snohomish Track Club when he convinced Neale’s parents — who were shuttling her as far south as Federal Way to train — to have Neale join his club.
At the time, the travel requirements limited Neale to three workouts per week. By staying in Snohomish, Dauncey argued, she could work out five times a week. “I mentioned to her, ‘Why don’t you just stick around here in Snohomish?’” Dauncey said.
Neale did just that and Dauncey began to work with his new runner when she was 9.
“She was a pretty gifted runner back then,” Dauncey said. “I could see she was good and just needed some good guidance.”
The two worked on improving Neale’s core, as well as building strength in her shoulders and arms. Part of the training involved running backward across a field. It wasn’t a drill Neale excelled at. In fact, she found herself routinely finishing last in a group of 12-20 runners.
“Amy would fall down and (wind up) in last place on that,” Dauncey said. “She worked hard and it really helped her a lot.”
Neale said she enjoys the strategy behind long-distance running as well as the combination of endurance and speed needed at the end. She tried gymnastics when she was younger, but didn’t like it as much. She also used to ski, but has cut back “because I don’t want to get hurt.”
She said running brings her a sense of peace.
“I found out I felt awful when I didn’t run. Emotionally, running just calmed me down,” she said. “It let me think through all my problems in life.”
For Neale, running is truly a team sport. She said she loves working with her fellow runners.
“Just looking after the girls and guys on the team, it’s cool being able to teach them,” Neale said. “… It’s not all about you. The best you can do for your team is also the best you can do for yourself. I love having other people to worry about as well.”
Once Neale got to Glacier Peak High School, she found a teammate who could push her in Katie Bianchini. According to Parker, Bianchini would be the No. 1 runner on almost any other team.
“I call her the best No. 2 runner in the nation,” Parker said. “She’s an awesome force in herself.”
During their sophomore season, Bianchini beat Neale in a couple of races.
“They’re totally friends,” Parker said. “Their interest is only in bettering themselves and the team. They work side by side in workouts and are both co-captains. (Bianchini) understands who Amy-Eloise is, but she also understands how amazing she is as well. She just tries to do the best she possibly can do.
“I think as the season goes, you’ll see some amazing things from those ladies.”
Yet, even with two stellar runners, a state title is no guarantee. The Grizzlies learned that painful lesson last fall. In the Class 3A title race, Glacier Peak lost the team title to Camas by two points. On top of that, Neale finished second — for the first time in a state cross country championship — losing to Katie Knight of North Central. Knight had finished behind Neale in each of their previous state races.
Dauncey said the GP coaches pushed the kids pretty hard prior to state in anticipation of the Nike Northwest Qualifying Meet the following weekend. The Grizzlies were able to qualify for the national meet, where Neale finished fourth.
“The team was a little overworked because we were focusing on the Nike Northwest regionals more than the state meet,” Dauncey said. “It was a shock to everybody. Including (Neale). She took it hard.
“The coaches had to take the blame,” Dauncey said. “But (the runners) shined at the Nike Northwest Qualifying Meet for the national championships.”
Neale isn’t sure what her future holds beyond this season. She’s considering a number of colleges, all on the West Coast. First, though, comes one more run at a state title.
“Last season I got really, really stressed out with school and everything,” Neale said. “This season I’m hoping to be more relaxed with everything.
“I think we definitely can win state. Our girls have a lot of potential. … I think if everything works out and everyone stays healthy, we will be on our way to nationals this year.”