"Whatever happened to...?"
This question is posed often in reference to young female phenoms, usually distance runners, who run to success early in their careers but fail to stay at a high level due to any number of reasons - including injuries, eating disorders and the mental challenge of staying at the top at so young an age.
Jordyn Colter won the Colorado XC State Championship as a freshman. But she has never been able to replicate the feat. Under the weight of high expectations as defending champion, Colter collapsed and did not finish the race in her sophomore year. In her junior year and this past fall, her senior cross country season, Colter finished 53rd and 104th, respectively.
The Cherry Creek, Co. athlete was very nearly another young star destined to burn bright and fast - but with a career over too soon.
Instead, the UC Berkeley-bound runner is having the best season of her career. This past weekend at the Stutler Bowl Twilight Invitational, she demolished the Colorado State Record in the 800 meters by two seconds, clocking a nation-leading 2:05.48.
She trains and runs most of her races at about 5,000 feet right outside of Denver.
"[The 2:05] wasn't a goal of mine really," Colter said. "I just want to break 2:10 because I haven't been able to break 2:10 at altitude before. I don't really get to come down to sea level a ton just because there are a ton of good meets up here in Colorado."
But it was a standout performance at the prestigious Arcadia Invitational that propelled Colter into the national spotlight this spring. She not only won the Mile in what still stands as the nation's fastest time of 4:45.24, but placed third in the 800 in 2:09.8.
"Arcadia was the coolest thing," she said. "I got to go with my team, which made it really special. The whole atmosphere, the runners are unbelievable, no matter if you're a sprinter or distance runner, there's so many people."
She also ran the fastest split on Friday night's 4x800m in 2:08.42.
"I was really nervous before because I wasn't sure how I would stack up against all those girls but the as soon as the gun went off, it was amazing to be running against such great competition. It gave me a lot of confidence to be able to compete with those girls. I still go through pictures on my phone."
The track season was a huge step in the right direction after a disappointing cross country season, where Colter struggled through patella tendonitis.
"I hit a really big growth spurt, so my bone was pulling away from my muscle," she said. "I never stopped exercising on it and they said it wouldn't get better unless I just stopped and rested... I was doing workouts without doing a lot of distance runs because state was coming up."
After her devastating collapse and subsequent 104th place finish at the Colorado State XC Championship, Colter took a week off from training entirely. When she laced up her shoes again in November, she focused on distance runs and base training.
"It was a really good mental break for me to just focus on how I could get better," she said. "My mom biked next to me during my long runs and for just 2-3 months, I could just focus on what I could do to get back and find that passion for running."
There is no denying that the fire to compete and improve belongs to Colter alone.
But she has had help along the way, including from mentor Melody Fairchild. The Boulder native is one of the all-time great prep distance runners and will forever stand in history as the first schoolgirl to break 10 minutes for two miles. But before finding collegiate success, Fairchild had to overcome her own demons - the pain of injuries, the shadow of an eating disorder, the challenge of living up to high expectations.
Fairchild walked away from her scholarship at Oregon and returned only in her senior year to win the NCAA 3,000m title.
She mentors many young athletes, particularly talented high school girls, because she has felt first-hand the pressure of success at a young age.
Colter's mother contacted Fairchild after Jordyn collapsed at the state cross country meet in her sophomore year.
"That winter, I served as her guide and a mentor for her overall well-being because it was a hard hit for her to go from being state champion and not even finishing the race next year," Fairchild said. "Of course, she had a lot of pressure on her for that race and it was intense for the whole family. I was right in my sweet spot getting to be there. That was my sweet spot of shepherding girls who are very talented but helping them realize that the path to success is full of valleys as well as peaks."
That fall, she went on to finish fourth at Foot Locker Nationals behind fellow sophomore champion Anna Rohrer (Mishawaka, IN), who would go on to struggle with her own injuries before returning this past fall to become just the second girl to win Foot Locker in non-consecutive years.
"I knew she was a really awesome runner but when I met her, having her tell me [her stories] face-to-face, it put it in perspective," Colter said. "It really was inspiring to see how well she did and right now be so strong."
Fairchild is herself a two-time Colorado State XC Champion.
Jordyn Colter finished fourth as a sophomore at the 2012 Foot Locker National XC Championship.
"No matter if you're in a really low point or a really high point, she always tells you, 'you can soar high,'" said Colter. "The smallest words of encouragement when you're at a low point in running, it's really helped me a lot and helped me believe in myself. It gave me an extra boost of confidence."
In time, Fairchild found her own longevity in the sport. After the NCAA title and an underwhelming run at the 2000 Olympic Trials, she took 10 years away from the sport only to return more recently as one of the top Masters runners in the country.
The Boulder legend is confident that Colter is already there.
"'Soar High,'" Fairchild said of her mantra. "I say it to her to remind her that she has the ability to soar and I associate the word 'soaring' even a step above 'flying.' Soaring, you're not just flying, everything - your mind, your body, your spirit, it's all lined up and dialed in in the moment when you're carrying out a task at hand, whether it's a workout or a race. Also 'Soar High' in terms of keeping focused on your big dreams; the art and the gift that elite athletes possess is that they can soar high and keep their eye on the big picture...
"The art is being able to do that and let it fuel us in the moment and at the same time be present."