February 19, 2014 11:38:58 AM
Sallie Gardner can blame it all on Mary Claire Akins.
All of the stitches in her side, all of the miles, all of the aches and pains associated with being a cross country runner, Gardner can hold Akins, one of her best friends, responsible for putting her through all of that torment.
On Wednesday, all of the hours training and all of the ordeals paid dividends for Heritage Academy's Gardner when she signed a scholarship to compete in cross country and track and field at Mississippi College in Clinton.
If it wasn't for Akins, who encouraged Gardner when they were in the seventh grade to join her at the cross country meeting, there would have been nothing to celebrate Wednesday morning. Instead, friends, family members, and coaches came together and packed the conference room at the school to share in Gardner's day.
"Oh no, I am not doing that," Gardner said, thinking back to what she told Akins when she asked her to run cross country. "She was running and she said, 'Please do it with me, please do it with me.' I did it because of her, so I would not be where I am today without her."
While she credited Akins for getting her started in cross country and track and field, where she competes in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters, Gardner has made steady progress without her friend, who no longer runs on the school's team due to a conflict with soccer. She smiled and laughed when asked to think how far she had come from her days as a beginner as a seventh-grader.
"I didn't know how well I could do, and at the time there were a lot of older people running, so I was kind of intimidated," Gardner said. "But (Mary Claire) was like, 'Please do it with me. We can do it together,' so we did and we were always within a place of each other. It seems like it was yesterday. It has passed by really fast.
"I would have never thought (I would get a scholarship to run cross country). It has just opened up in the past year and a half. I just thought, 'Well, maybe I can run in college,' and it all just went from there."
Gardner finished 22nd with a time of 14 minutes, 37 seconds on Oct. 28, 2013, at the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools overall Class AAA state meet at Choctaw Trails in Clinton. Gardner said the time was a few seconds shy of the new goal she set for herself after eclipsing her goal at the Class AAA North State meet. Gardner knows her times and her mileage (around 20-25 miles a week) will have to increase when she gets to college. She said she likely will have to run as many as 40-60 miles a week and maintain her times to stay competitive at the college level. She feels that will be a challenge, but she feels her maturation as a runner will help her handle it.
"I am excited," Gardner said. "The main reason I applied to MC is because of their science department because I want to do something in the medical field. When I heard they had a cross country team, I looked at some of their runners and I met their coach and it all just came together. As I was running this year, I always had in the back of my mind I would love to run, so it all just worked out."
Gardner credited classmate and basketball teammate Shiloh Ellis for sticking with her and being a motivator when she trains. After five years of learning how to become a runner, Gardner feels she is ready to take the next step and to push herself to see how fast she can go. With each mile, Gardner can think of Akins and smile as she fights through the stitches and aches and pains.
"We have practice every morning at 6 a.m. and then they switch to the afternoon later on in the year, but it is every day, it is hardcore, and the coach expects me to beat a certain time," Gardner said. "I will be running with a lot more people, so that will be better to push me and to be ahead of me, so I can push for something. It is going to take more time and more heart -- and it is going to hurt -- but it will be worth it."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.