Amy-Eloise Neale of the University of Washington (144) leads the pack during the Washington Invitational cross countrymeet in October at Jefferson Park Golf Course in Seattle. (Scott Eklund / Red Box Pictures)

Amy-Eloise Neale of the University of Washington (144) leads the pack during the Washington Invitational cross countrymeet in October at Jefferson Park Golf Course in Seattle. (Scott Eklund / Red Box Pictures)

2016 Woman of the Year in Sports: Amy-Eloise Neale

Related: Desiree Miller, Liv Larson, Trystan Melhart finalists for Woman of the Year in Sports

For two years, Amy-Eloise Neale wondered whether she would ever get back to being an elite runner.

As decorated a high school distance runner as the state of Washington has ever produced during her days at Glacier Peak, Neale’s collegiate career at the University of Washington was derailed before it truly got started because of injuries. Whether Neale would ever be able to reach the heights her prep career predicted was in doubt.

But Neale finally got healthy in 2016, and oh what a comeback she made.

Neale burst back onto the distance-running scene in a big way, winning both the Pac-12 and West Region women’s cross country championships, and her comeback made her the Herald’s Woman of the Year in Sports for 2016.

“When you dream of collegiate running you don’t dream about being injured and having bad runs, you dream about doing really well at Pac-12s and regionals and nationals,” Neale said. “So I’m really grateful. It’s been a long road and I’ve made some mistakes, but once I figured out what my body needs, it’s been very rewarding being in this position now.”

“For a young woman who comes out of high school in Washington and goes to Washington, people are going to pay attention,” Huskies cross country coach Greg Metcalf said. “She had such an outstanding high school career that she’s someone who people are always going to ask about. For her to go through the ups and downs in her college career and be where she is today is a wonderful example.”

Neale had a legendary career while at Glacier Peak from 2009-13, winning three 3A state cross country titles and seven 3A track and field championships, as well as excelling at both the national and international levels. When she joined the Huskies in the fall of 2013, it was expected that her success from high school would follow.

But after a promising freshman year running cross country and indoor track, the injuries began. It started in the spring of 2014 when issues with her shins caused stress reactions. Then came issues with the IT band in her upper leg that led to a stress reaction in her femur. Then the shin issues cropped up again. Her 2014 outdoor season was wiped out, as was her whole 2014-15 school year as she was forced to redshirt. When spring of 2016 rolled around she’d been out nearly two years.

Neale admitted that being on the sidelines was frustrating. But she worked on biomechanical issues and strengthening her core to try to prevent the injuries from recurring, and she hinted at what was ahead by finishing 10th in the 1,500 meters at the 2016 NCAA Outdoor Championships as a sophomore, earning second-team All-American honors.

Then came her banner cross country season as a junior. First, she won a thrilling race at the Pac-12 Championships. Engaged in a head-to-head battle with Colorado’s Erin Clark, Neale took the lead with 400 meters to go, lost it with 50 remaining, then made one final push to prevail by a tenth of a second.

“To win the Pac-12s in 90 degrees in Tucson, and the Pac-12 is loaded, is incredible,” Metcalf said. “Amy found one more gear, she was so tough and determined to make one last push. That was a quintessential defining moment. She said she thought she’d never be back and this good. I’ve watched her run that last 400 a dozen times, it was an incredible win.”

Neale provided less drama at the West Region Championships, dominating the field in winning by 12 seconds. She became the first Washington runner to win the Pac-12s and regionals back-to-back. She went on to finish eighth at the NCAA Championships, earning first-team All-American honors.

That put Neale back in a place she was unsure she would ever reach again.

“I think it wasn’t until I was on the starting line again that I was certain I would run again,” Neale said. “I wanted to, but there were days where I’d be on the bike and it was overwhelming. I’d think, ‘Why am I biking when I may never run again?’ I had to take it day by day, that even if I had a bad day or week that the next one would be better.

“The transition to college is a big step,” Neale added. “The training isn’t all that different, but there’s different factors that go into it. I was used to training alone, and now you have a great group of women you’re training with and it’s easy to go too hard. I had to learn how to communicate with my coaches about where I was at physically.”

Neale seems to have figured it out. Not only did she make it through all of 2016 healthy, she’s off to a good start in the 2017 outdoor track and field season, too, winning the 5,000 meters at the Stanford Invitational earlier this month. She’s hoping to improve upon her placings at nationals from the previous year.

But most importantly, she’s thrilled to be back to her full self.

“I’m just really excited to be back,” Neale said. “I have a great team around me and it’s rewarding to be back running with them.”

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