* Park Tudor (IN) junior Sophia Kennedy was third at the Eastbay XC Championships
Photo Credit: Raymond Tran/MileSplit
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By Brett Haffner - MileSplit Correspondent
Over the past handful of years, we have seen numerous sons and daughters of former world-class athletes rise to the top of the high school running scene.
Some prevalent examples include: Drew Hunter (Son of Marc Hunter, World XC Qualifier), Katie Rainsberger (Daughter of Lisa Rainsbeger, Boston Marathon & Chicago Marathon Champion), Joe Klecker (Son of Barney Klecker, Former Men's US 50k Record Holder & Janis Klecker, Olympic Marathon Qualifier) and Cruz Culpepper (Son of Alan Culpepper, Two-Time Olympian), among others.
While the vast majority of distance runners in the U.S. don't come from parents who experienced major success in their running careers, it's really interesting to hear the stories from the children of some of the America's most decorated distance runners.
Enter Sophia Kennedy, a junior at Park Tudor School in Indianapolis, Indiana. She just finished up her cross country season with an incredible seventh-place finish at the Eastbay Cross Country Championships on Dec. 11 in San Diego, California, and has since paved her way into the upper echelons of high school distance running.
Sophia happens to be the daughter of legendary U.S. distance runner Bob Kennedy, who was a two-time Olympian in the 5K and the first man in the U.S. to break 13:00 at the distance. He once held three American records in the 3K (7:30.84), 2-mile (8:11.59), and 5K (12:58.21).
We should also mention that Bob was a National Champion at what-was-then called the Kinney Cross Country Championship in 1987, which morphed into Foot Locker Nationals and now into the Eastbay Cross Country Championships.
For Sophia, qualifying for this meet was a big goal of hers heading into this fall.
"I want to be the best runner that I can be, but it would be really cool if [both her and Bob] performed super well," Sophia said of running up to her father's history. "My parents are very clear about emphasizing that there's no pressure to live up to my dad's standards, and I don't feel too much pressure to do so -- I make him tell me all of his running stories."
With her family ties propelling her to be the best runner she can be, Sophia was ready and poised for her junior cross country season.
However, she didn't know that it was going to be a long and rocky road ahead to get there first.
"After a rough start to the season, I was really worried about whether I would be running to my ability or not when Eastbay Regionals came around," Sophia said. "I picked up an achilles injury at the start of the season and really only got into consistent training until after the state meet."
A third-place finish at the IHSAA cross country state meet was an improvement relative to her season -- which went along with no achilles pain -- but a freak flare-up of pain the Wednesday before the state meet had Sophia worried heading into the postseason.
"I had to be super cautious after that freak incident, which had me really worried. But I was able to train with some really solid weeks after that," Sophia said. "It was just my [Team Midwest Regional] race that definitely was not my best."
"My parents are very clear about emphasizing that there's no pressure to live up to my dad's standards, and I don't feel too much pressure to do so -- I make him tell me all of his running stories." -- Sophia Kennedy
Accidentally eating a bar containing peanuts before the race, Sophia's peanut allergy acted up during the Team Midwest race, leaving her with an 18th-place finish and one upset stomach.
"Thankfully the reaction wasn't too serious, I just had a really bad stomach ache and some nausea," she said. "But I was really glad I was able to pinpoint where that race went wrong because I knew I would be fine for Eastbay [Midwest]."
With more consistent training under her belt, the rocky road that had deterred Sophia's season was beginning to clear up heading into the Eastbay Midwest Regional.
Taking her momentum from training and rolling with it, Sophia ran a standout race to take third-place and qualified for Eastbay Nationals. She was one of 19 non-seniors to qualify in 2021.
"I was not expecting to have been third at all, but more like eighth or somewhere on the bubble of qualifying," Sophia said. "My dad and I talked about finishing this race with no regrets, and I went out hard to stick with the leaders and hang on as best as I could. It didn't hit me until after the race that I had qualified, ran a huge PR and ran my best race ever."
What made the occasion even more rewarding was the stellar performance from her Park Tudor teammate Gretchen Farley, who placed eighth and also qualified.
These two teammates had some very differing training schedules due to other commitments as well as injuries, but they came together to be the only pair of women to qualify for nationals together.
"It was so exciting to qualify with [Gretchen]; we spent the next two weeks talking about how excited we were," Sophia said. "She's a childhood friend of mine who grew up right across the street from me, so it was so great to have a familiar face there with me."
When push came to shove, Sophia was able to qualify for the national cross country meet, just as her father Bob did in his youth.
Bob's one piece of advice for Sophia, she said: 'Don't fall down the big hill.'
Bob actually took a tumble down the infamous, steep hill when he ran at Balboa Park in his day.
Thankfully, just two weeks later, Sophia was able to stay on her feet.
She ultimately ended up finishing seventh at the Eastbay Cross Country Championships, capping off a stellar end to her junior cross country season.
"My goal was to get top 10, which I did, which was really exciting," Sophia said.
"I executed the race plan I had to the T, which was to get out hard and keep pressing. The hills were tough, and every girl I talked to said they felt like they were walking up [the big hill] the second time around. The downhill wasn't any easier."
Capping off the season was an incredible experience for Sophia, she said.
And getting to meet pro runners such as Shalene Flanagan and Conner Mantz also helped. Soo too was being able to enjoy the California weather with her family, as well as her teammate Gretchen.
There's not just one Kennedy the distance running community will come to recognize in the near future.
With the support of her dad, Sophia Kennedy is now writing her own story.
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