* Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports
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SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA -- When Zofia Dudek was a young girl and living in America, in a stretch of Florida where the heat hangs off the trees, she began running because there was a prize at the finish line: A necklace.
Each lap around her local track earned her a new pendant to put on it, so every week the Polish-born student-athlete kept running and logging victories. Soon enough that necklace was perfect, shiny and colorful, the perfect representation of her hard work.
On Saturday, roughly nine years after earning her first pendant on that track at Tampa Palms Elementary School, and maybe just a few hundred meters from the finish line on Saturday at Foot Locker Nationals, she was reminded of what it would take to win another prize.
In an instant, the Ann Arbor Pioneer senior covered the roughly 10 meter distance between her and Marlee Starliper and flooded to the finish in one incredible fell swoop, winning her first national cross country title in 16:45.00, now the fifth-fastest effort all-time at Balboa Park.
"I knew I didn't come here just to race but to win," she said. "That was my goal. I knew if I didn't put that as my goal then I wouldn't win. For me, anytime I think about being in the top five or something like that, I know I probably won't be a winner. Having that to be my goal. And if I didn't accomplish that goal, I would be OK as long as I tried for that."
Starliper ran the sixth-fastest effort in 16:46.8. Muskegon Western Michigan sophomore Abby Vanderkooi was third in 16:55.2. Three girls broke 17 minutes on the day, making it arguably the fastest national championship race in Foot Locker history.
Starliper's race was impressive in its own right, too. The Northern High School senior had finished 13th in back-to-back races previously. But the Pennsylvania-based athlete was incredibly poised, never yielding to a fast pace as she worked within her own plan and made her way through the field by mile two.
A light flu a few days before Foot Locker worried her, she said, but a week long retreat following Nike Cross Nationals -- including a run on Pre's trail in Eugene, a pitstop and run through the California Redwoods and another on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco -- down the coast allowed her to examine her season and to relax heading into her final cross country race.
"It was a huge," she said. "It was awesome to adjust fully to the time change. I had the best run of my life in the Redwoods."
While she didn't win, Starliper said she was still happy with the result.
"I wanted the win," she said. "That was still probably the best race I've ever had. I'm so thankful how it turned out."
She also gave credit to Dudek, whose gutsy sprint to the finish won it.
"I feel absolutely insane," said Dudek, who's been in Ann Arbor for the past three years and in the United States for several years, including prior stops in Florida and Indiana as her father, a traveling professor, is on new assignments. "I love the experience here and the whole race and I still can't believe I've won."
It wasn't exactly surprising for the Michigan-based runner. The Stanford signee's season has been full of major performances and big wins, including her first MHSAA LP Division I State Cross Country Championship, a NXR Midwest title and a PR of 16:46.90.
She declined an automatic invitation to NXN in favor of traveling to Portugal for the European U20 Cross Country Championships, where she finished fifth overall in a 4K race.
On the plane back to Michigan, hovering over the Atlantic ocean, Dudek said she thought about her final race, about what her past disappointments and new successes had taught her. All of it had given her new opportunities, the chance to represent her country at the junior level. There was one more high school race left.
"The past year has been amazing for me," she said. "I've been successful running against all these incredible runners. That definitely has given me confidence out here."
Even before that, Dudek had been incredible over the track season. She won an elite mile at Brooks PR consisting of athletes from across the country, posting a PR of 4:41.34. Later in the summer, she went overseas, wearing Poland's jersey for the first time as she won the 3,000-meter race at the European U20 Track and Field Championships.
But when paired with the heartbreak of last year, when Dudek failed to qualify for either Foot Locker Nationals or Nike Cross Nationals, it showed an incredible transformation of an athlete that continues to make believers out of the doubters. Few picked Dudek to win Saturday after all that travel.
At Ann Arbor Pioneer, Dudek trains with relatively low mileage -- sometimes the program's long runs are no more than five miles.
"Last year watching this race and thinking maybe one day I could be with these amazing runners," Dudek said. "And then coming out this year and winning. It felt almost impossible last year."
Her final move may have clinched the title, but Dudek was in control the entire way. She never lost touch with the leader, whether it was Katelynne Hart -- who opened with a 5:09 mile -- or Starliper, who made a move midway through Balboa's hills to try and snag her own championship. Hart ceded control a little after two miles as Dudek grabbed the lead.
But heading into the critical hill, Vanderkooi and Hart were still in the hunt. It was a four-girl race.
When Starliper started to pull away just after the crest, creating as much as a 10 meter gap as she road the downhill, Dudek hoped to hang on. But she was concerned.
"She caught me on the hill and took the lead," Dudek said. "I felt her getting away a little bit. I was a bit worried about that. I just tried to go for that downhill. It's a difficult part for everyone."
Dudek, however, knew there wasn't much left. She dug in for the kind of championship-finish that Foot Locker is becoming known for in recent years -- last year's girls championship had also come down to a sprint.
"When I saw her in front of me, I realized I was getting closer to her," she said, "I decided to go for it."
Perhaps it's the latest victory for Dudek, who's quickly becoming a phenom in distance running circles, even though it took time and some disappointment along the way.
Her father, Maciej, who watched the race play out in front of him, was equally amazed on Saturday.
The traveling professor, who is now at the University of Michigan, said there's no family history in running. And while he and his wife have been incredibly proud of how Dudek has competed, they're not quite sure what all this success means. Maybe it will lead to more; but they'll be OK as long as their daughter is happy.
"Sometimes my parents say, 'Oh Zofia, we think you've accomplished enough already," Zofia said jokingly. " Give it a break.' For me, my accomplishments allow me to keep going."
Dudek's high school career isn't over just yet, either. The win only adds more intrigue to the indoor and outdoor season, where she will likely compete in select races.
Soon enough, she'll go back home, back to reality, and back to school.
At home, she'll be able to pin her bib, find a good place for her medals and trophy, and maybe, just maybe, find that necklace again.
FOOT LOCKER NATIONALS RESULTS:
1. Zofia Dudek, Ann Arbor Pioneer (MI), 16:45.00
2. Marlee Starliper, Northern (PA), 16:46.8
3. Abby Vanderkooi, Muskegon Western Michigan Christian (MI), 16:55.2
4. Katelynne Hart, Glenbard West (IL), 17:14.4
5. Jenna Hutchins, Science Hill (TN), 17:16.1
6. Taylor Ewert, Beavercreek (OH), 17:16.4
7. Sydney Masciarelli, Marianapolis Prep (MA), 17:19.4
8. Carly McNatt, IMG Academy (FL), 17:32.6
9. Kate Wiser, Pomperaug (CT), 17:35.9
10. Tatum David, Richland County (IL), 17:37.8
11. Karrie Baloga, Cornwall (NY), 17:40.3
12. Annalyssa Crain, Edgewood (IN), 17:43.8
13. Juliette Whittaker, Mount de Sales (MD), 17:48.8
14. Analee Weaver, Stillwater (MN), 17:49.9
15. Alyssa Hendrix, Riverview (FL), 17:57.4
16. Jenna Goldberg, Walter Johnson (MD), 17:57.8
17. Riley Stewart, Cherry Creek (CO), 17:58.4
18. Audrey DaDamio, Seaholm (MI), 17:59.0
19. Avery Clover, Atascocita (TX), 18:01.2
20. Bethany Graham, John Champe (VA), 18:03.0
21. Kelsey Harrington (VA), 18:04.0
22. Margot Appleton, Portsmouth Abbey (RI), 18:07.3
23. Ava Dobson, St. Joseph's (SC), 18:08.2
24. Sofie Matson, Falmouth (ME), 18:12.1
25. Anna Martin, Lehi (UT), 18:12.6
26. Skyler Wallace, Sage Creek (CA), 18:15.2
27. Nicole Vanasse, Pingry School (NJ), 18:20.5
28. Daniella Santos, Hilliard Darby (OH), 18:23.7
29. Valerie Lastra, Mater Academy (FL), 18:30.3
30. Grace Ping, Desert Vista (AZ), 18:30.3
31. Landri Wilcox, Cookeville (TN), 18:34.5
32. Dalia Frias, Mira Costa (CA), 18:45.0
33. Sofia Abrego, Granada Hills (CA), 18:45.7
34. Carly Corsinita, Capistrano Valley (CA), 18:48.6
35. Camille Napier, St. Agnes (TX), 18:49.3
36. Ella Borsheim, Bellarmine Prep (WA), 18:53.7
37. Abby Kendrick, Hellgate (MT), 18:53.7
38. Cate Joaquin, St. Francis Sacramento (CA), 19:13.8
39. Mia Barnett, Village Christian (CA), 19:32.4
40. Taryn Parks, Greencastle-Antrim (PA), 20:00.5
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