By Denise Spann - Milesplit Correspondent
As Sydney Thorvaldson prepared for a trip to New York this past winter, like many others with hopes of winning national titles, she witnessed a global pandemic take shape in its infancy.
Excitement turned to concern, and then concern then turned wonder.
Will things ever be normal again?
Nearly eight months later, things certainly haven't been exactly where-they-were, but they also haven't been the worst case scenario, either.
After a hugely cross country successful season, with five straight wins, Thorvaldson secured her conference championship on Thursday and is now heading toward a potential fourth straight state title in Wyoming.
That would be her 15th title of her career.
"[Our team] is a really small group, but we're all really close," Thorvaldson said. "This year our team is looking really well, and I think if we all run a great race then we could take the conference title. That's really been exciting for us to experience. I've been running with these girls since middle school and these races are getting really important to us."
Looking back all those months earlier, though, it's still a hard pill to swallow.
What could have been her best outdoor season to date became a game of what if, as both local and national cancellations piled up on the calendar.
Prior to COVID-19, Thorvaldson, a current Rawlins (WY) High School senior and University of Arkansas commit, was ranked inside the top 10 nationally in the indoor 1,600 meters (4:52.53) and the two-mile (10:31.56) run. She also ran a US No. 2 time of 10:06.58 for 3,200 meters at the Simplot Games.
The Arkansas commit knew she always loved running in a unique way, dating all the way back to the beginning of her career in middle school.
"For me, it's always important to keep it fun, because I know when you love the sport it loves you back," she said. "And so that's always been super important for me and especially during times when I've been injured, it's been tough to love the sport."
She loved the sport so much over the forced offseason, that on some weeks she overtrained.
Ultimately, Thorvaldson would then struggle with a muscle imbalance that kept her from running. But it also turned to a positive, as she began working with a physical therapist.
"I feel like [overtraining] is the hardest thing for me, especially when I'm feeling so good and having good workouts," she explained. "It's so easy for me to think I need to do more, or that I need to do something faster with less recovery. That's always led me to injury, so now that I've learned from that I'm making minor improvements... rather than stacking on more mileage. I think that's made a huge difference for me."
"It was really tough
[losing the season], but in a way, myself and a lot of other people gained a
different love for the sport," Thorvaldson said. "Just being able to train and
love running for what it is, rather than competing and that sort of stuff. So,
in a way I think it was also a blessing."
The 2020 cross country season presented unique parameters for Thorvaldson. She wasn't entirely sure if Wyoming was going to have a season.
This left her with a lot of questions surrounding her training.
"It was weird not knowing when to start, if to start training," she said. "It was hard to know when you needed to peak and even still, are there going to be postseason competitions? Regardless, I think that myself and my team have adapted really well to it and continue to find the good in it."
Thorvaldson would have been the top returner at Nike Cross Nationals, with a third-place finish in 2019.
But Team XC Nationals didn't wait very long to give athletes an answer, as Nike canceled its team and individuals championships in July. The Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, meanwhile, did the same in October.
With no elite racing in 2020, that led Thorvaldson to ask herself a question.
What keeps an athlete with 14 state titles and national all-time best performances at her peak?
But that was a simple question -- she's not chasing the competition, she's chasing herself.
"I've always been really big on improving off myself. The good thing about that is you don't need competition to know you're improving off yourself," she explained. "Thankfully for me, I know it's different for a lot of people, but I've been able to have a pretty regular season just as I usually would. So, I've been able to compare my times from last year and I've seen major improvements which is really impressive for me. Seeing that improvement and working off what I accomplished last year has been so motivating for me."
At the Heritage Distance Classic, the senior was finally able to release that pent-up excitement and readiness from March.
Thorvaldson separated herself from the pack to run a 5K best of 16:19, which was a 20-second personal best and US No. 1.
With that performance, she's the fastest Wyoming high school female to run 5K and climbed to US No. 3 all-time.
As the opportunity to earn her 15th state title approaches, Thorvaldson finds it unbelievable what she's been able to accomplish.
"To be able to compete the way that I am is amazing," she said. "It's just an amazing feeling gaining the support of the community and the whole state in general. To be looked at as an example for younger kids is so cool."