West Virginia's Irene Riggs Finished Off '22 With A Bang

* Irene Riggs races off the hip of Dalia Frias in the 2-mile at Brooks PR in June

Photo Credit: Jamie Mitchell/MileSplit

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By Phil Grove - MileSplit

    In three years at Morgantown High School, Irene Riggs has shown herself very capable of being equal parts trailblazer and follower. On both sides of the coin, the rising senior from West Virginia is proud to be the latest in a growing list of distance standouts from the Mountain state.

    "Every time we go out of state, we really try to do well," said Riggs, who picked up a state triple this outdoor season in West Virginia. "We want to show that distance running in West Virginia is really pretty awesome. We have a lot of talented runners that come from West Virginia and some people kind of forget about us a little bit.

    "It's a little bit hard, but also it makes it even more special when you go out (of state) and you do really well. You kind of get to shock everyone and be like, 'Yeah, we're from West Virginia."

    Over the past decade, talents such as Jacob Burcham, Millie Paladino, Victoria Starcher and Larry Josh Edwards have been standard-bearers for West Virginia distance running.

    But earlier this month, Riggs, an Eastbay Cross Country Championship qualifier and an All-American in 2021, raised that recognition level several notches, charting a course that few can say they attempted and far fewer have achieved. Her side-by-side battle with California's Dalia Frias over 2 miles at Brooks PR resulted in the duo skyrocketing to U.S. No. 1 and 2 all-time at the distance, separated by only 0.02 seconds at the line in 9:50.70 and 9:50.72, respectively.

    And what's more on the trailblazing front? While most high-profile juniors across the United States are circling their remaining college options, Riggs is ready to shift down. No more visits. No more pitches.

    The West Virginian is choosing Stanford. 

    For Riggs, Brooks PR was the second major effort outdoors at the distance in 2022. A week before anchoring her 4x800 squad to a fifth-place finish in their debut at the Penn Relays, she ventured out in the cool of the night for a solo record attempt in her hometown, looking to break the state 3,200-meter record of 10:00.42 in 2014 by current New Balance pro Paladino.

    "I arranged the meet so the 3,200m would be at night under the lights on a fast track," Morgantown distance and XC coach Mike Ryan said of the record attempt on the new Mylan Park Track. "It was an electric atmosphere for the distance runners -- (Oregon signee) Larry Josh Edwards also ran 8:45 that evening.

    "I also think that race highlighted the runner Irene had become. She was very methodical in her approach to the race and her splits very consistent. I feel this really helped her at Brooks PR."

    Riggs admitted that her 3,200 and two miles races were polar opposites. But at least with her race at home, she said, it definitely helped her performance at the University of Washington.

    "The one here in Morgantown was really special because I did it by myself," she said of her 9:54.69 performance and 43-second margin at the finish. "I felt proud of the fact that I went out and accomplished my goal for the season -- go sub-10:00 in the 32. I felt relieved that I had gotten my goal, and I also felt happy that I was able to do it by myself.

    "Being at Brooks and racing … was such a fun experience… The goal was really just to stay with that top group, and then me and Dalia ended up just running pretty much side by side the whole race. Obviously, you've got to be a little bummed when it's that close, but I was just so happy to be able to have somebody push me because honestly it felt so much more relaxed."

    Starting Slowly 


    With her father, Vic Riggs, the head swimming coach at West Virginia University and her mother, Renee, directing a high-level club team, Riggs was introduced to aquatics at a young age with one family rule: No competitive swimming until Irene and her sisters were at least 7-8 years old.

    "When I was growing up, my parents were like, 'Have fun. Do whatever makes you happy,'" Riggs said. "They really tried, because we were so involved in the sport atmosphere as they both coached, to make sure that we knew there was no pressure to do a sport or there was no pressure to really excel in a sport, just do it for fun.

    "I think that honestly helped me so much because when I was in middle school, I wasn't putting a ton of pressure on myself to meet certain times or certain goals. When I got to high school and I really shifted all my focus toward running, I was ready to have a competitive take on running. I hadn't been doing that so it made it fun and new."

    For the 2019 XC season, Riggs was introduced to two experienced teammates and a coach who helped open the door to her potential. Riggs finished third to fellow teammates Lea Hatcher and Athena Young in the state cross country finale and narrowly missed joining them as individual qualifiers to the Team Cross Country Nationals.

    "I came into a really good team for not having a super competitive background," Riggs said of that 2019 squad. "Coming in with (Athena and Lea), they were like a motivation for me. I saw how seriously they took running. That is what made me take running super seriously.

    "It's a little bit hard, but also it makes it even more special when you go out (of state) and you do really well. You kind of get to shock everyone and be like, 'Yeah, we're from West Virginia."

    "I am obviously really blessed with a very knowledgeable coach. Because of that, we have a lot of strength and tactical things that he implements into our training and that really helped me get better in small ways. If you do those little things over and over again, eventually you're going to start to see a difference."

    Riggs noted that missing the 2020 track season because of the global pandemic was "like a blessing and a curse."

    While it took away additional chances to hone her racing skills, it provided ample time to build a mileage base, which was vital for success on the track and during XC. In the fall of 2020, Riggs led teammate Hatcher across the finish line in the state finale as Morgantown won another team crown.

    Although she swept the Class AAA 8-16-32 triple in the 2021 state outdoor track championships, Riggs admitted to wanting more this past fall when the her program crossed state lines for the first time since the pandemic with a trip north to Pittsburgh's Red, White & Blue Classic.

    In a duel talked about long after it ended, Riggs gave then two-time Pennsylvania state champion Mia Cochran all she could handle, losing by only three seconds. 

    "Coming out and having a strong race and being able to stick with Mia, who is obviously a very accomplished runner, was important," Riggs said. "I think that was a really exciting race for me. I remember leaving Red, White & Blue very happy."

    By the time Ryan's Morgantown squad (and Riggs, too) dominated again at the state meet in late October, she was ready to join an exclusive group of Eastbay (Foot Locker) qualifiers from West Virginia. An eighth-place finish in the South Regional was followed by an All-American run to 14th at Balboa Park in San Diego.

    What's Next?


    Long before she became one of the fastest ever at 3,200m and two miles in West Virginia, Riggs became a recruiting favorite for the nation's top distance programs.

    Official visits to North Carolina State, Virginia and Stanford came soon after as she planned to make a commitment prior to kicking off her senior season at Morgantown.

    "I did want to make it before the fall," she said. "It's my last XC season and I didn't really want to be burdened with taking visits and planning them around races. I was blessed to be able to talk to all three of those schools, which were super amazing, so nice and welcoming.

    "At the end of the day, I really fell in love with (Stanford and) the area. I really thought I fit in with the team well. I know Tori Starcher, I know a lot of the girls who are from the 2022 class at Eastbay. I just felt like I fit in there the best. So that's kind of what swung me, and I love Coach (J.J.) Clark and Coach Addy (Royal) a lot."

    With last week's verbal commitment and a rest week behind her, Riggs is looking forward to getting back to the "relatively low-mileage" training that allowed her to become the latest West Virginia runner to make national headlines while setting the bar a little higher for those who follow that path.

    "I want to enjoy all of it," she said of the coming year. "I want to focus on getting stronger and getting base training to make the transition (to college) easier."

    What more can Riggs do? 

    We're just going to have to find out.