Runners ready for nationals

The Federal Way Track Club, a youth running organization, is sending 41 athletes to the Junior Olympic nationals Dec. 8 in Lincoln, Neb.

It’s the largest number of runners the club has sent to nationals.

“We’re getting a reputation now,” said coach Darryl Genest. “It’s a great opportunity for exposure to college coaches. We get those younger athletes trained then get them to where they want to be in their high school careers.”

The club sent a record 70 athletes to the association meet Nov. 10 at Woodland Park in Seattle. From there, 57 qualified for the regional meet Nov. 18 in Sandy, Ore. The top three teams and 40 runners in each division advanced to nationals.

For Jessica Hafen, a 16-year-old junior at Federal Way, the club season picked up when the high school season ended.

“I’ve been training really hard for this,” Hafen said. “Hopefully I’ll run my best at nationals. I’m really nervous, I don’t know what to expect.”

It’s Hafen’s first time competing in the national race, which features as many as 250 runners in each race.

“It’s pretty intimidating because everyone there is fast,” Hafen said. “It’s the top runners in the nation. You have to be tough and realize that you did qualify and you are capable of running with the elite runners. Knowing you’ve competed at the national level builds confidence for the high school season. It’s mentally strengthening.”

All the runners are looking forward to competing at the national race.

“It’s going to be fun,” said Shaun Helm, 15, a sophomore at Decatur. “We’re just going out there to run. We’re definitely going to do well.”

“I’m pretty excited,” said Gabe Renfro, 16, a sophomore at Bellarmine Prep who lives in Federal Way. “I didn’t even know about nationals, then I qualified. I’m just doing this to stay in shape. It’s hard to train alone because you don’t have anyone to push you. When you have competition, you always push yourself harder.”

Runners going to nationals from the club are as young as 11.

“I’m excited — it’s my first time,” said Justin Helm, 11, a sixth-grader at Green Gables. “My goal is to get top 25, because then you’re an All-American.”

For Blake Cowan, this is his second trip to nationals.

“Nervousness, that’s what I can remember,” said Cowan, 11, a sixth-grader at Maplewood. “I shouldn’t be nervous, but it’s hard not to be.”

Cowan and Helm finished 12th and 13th, respectively, at the regional meet in Oregon.

They always run together, and they’re hoping to do the same at nationals. That sort of friendly competition within the club has been a successful formula for brewing top runners.

“They run hard, but they’re always laughing,” said Rose Cowan, Blake’s mom. “All the kids are good together. They always look forward to running. And it’s good to have a coach out their running with them.”

Coach Genest is one of the reasons many parents choose the club for their children.

“We liked Darryl’s coaching style. It fit with what we wanted for our daughter,” said Scott Drennen, who drives his daughter, Katrina, from Orting to practice in Federal Way. “He has a lot of knowledge and a way of connecting with the kids. He’s able to communicate with the younger kids. It’s what we were looking for.”

Twenty-four different high schools are represented by the group going to nationals. Some travel from as far away as Gig Harbor to train with the team. Brandon Norton, 15, is a sophomore at Enumclaw.

“I’m doing it to do better in high school next year,” Norton said. “The practices are so much more intense and it’s pushed me past the next level. It’s already made me better. I’m looking forward to the experience of running with a bunch of good people at nationals.”

“I’m ready for nationals because I worked really hard for it,” said Katrina Drennen, a seventh-grader from Orting. “I practice every day.”

“I’m happy because I get to go,” said Angela Copernoll, 12, a seventh-grader at Kilo. “It’ll be fun running in a different place and going on a plane. I’m confident I’ll do good.”

For many of the runners, the trip to Nebraska was made possible by a grant from the Weyerhaeuser Foundation.

“Several of our athletes are benefiting from the generosity of the Weyerhaeuser Foundation,” Genest said. “Through the travel scholarships, all the athletes were able to participate and achieve their dreams of competing at nationals.”

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