As soon as the fettucine alfredo hits the plate, it gets real.
Among the many pre-race traditions for IHSAA Girls Cross Country Championships' veteran Taylor Austin is a Friday night trip to the Terre Haute Olive Garden, which is usually packed with carb-loading, state-qualifying runners.
It is fitting that the Griffith senior, who will compete in the state meet for the third time Saturday morning at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course, chooses a restaurant whose motto is, “When you’re here, you’re family.”
That slogan easily could double as the display type on the banner for Austin’s traveling cheering section.
Her mom Leslie, a hard-working widow raising two daughters, never misses a race. She also brings several of Taylor’s aunts and many friends of hers and her late husband.
Leslie and some family members are likely to be at the dinner table tonight when coach Shannon Scheidel and her star pupil pass the bread sticks and salad tongs.
Many cross country teams bandy the “family” cliches around, but with the numbers so thin at Griffith that the Panthers seldom fielded a squad of the requisite five runners for a team score, blood relatives were Austin’s loudest support system.
“They just want to be there for me, so now they all come out and support me,” Austin said. “My mom, she’s always there. She always has a positive attitude. She pumps me up. She always has different types of sayings to motivate me.”
The family has experienced several losses starting with Austin’s dad, Jeff, who died eight years ago from ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Two years ago an aunt in Florida succumbed to cancer, and last year during basketball season one of Taylor’s grandmothers died of ovarian cancer.
Members of the hard-hit, tight-knit family will be spread around the hilly course Saturday morning in Terre Haute for the final race of a truly phenomenal career, one Austin hopes ends with a Top 15 finish and second consecutive all-state finish.
“It is my last high school race; I don’t want to regret anything,” Austin said. “It’s a crazy experience. You never know what to think unless you go down there. It’s pretty cool, and I’m glad I get to experience it more than one time.”
In a month where pink is ubiquitous and red ribbons, et al dot wardrobes, Austin will not wear a cloth tribute. Her symbolic nod is not so easily removable.
Earlier this year Austin got angel wings, a heart and the number “143” (representing the number of letters in the phrase “I love you”) colorfully tattooed on her back left shoulder as tribute to her father.
“She's very close with her mom, and she always races for her dad,” Scheidel said. “She knows he's watching down on her. You hear her say things like, ‘My dad would be proud.’”
The school record holder for 5,000 meters (18:42 at the 2011 New Prairie Semistate) and the only four-time individual champ in the Northwest Crossroads Conference’s moderately short history, Austin was 35th at state as a freshman, came short of qualifying as a sophomore and took 24th last year.
She’s persevered through numerous trips to chiropractors and various amounts of hip pain.
Before winning the small-school race at the Gavit Invitational in August, she took her new orthotics out of her new black and pink Saucony shoes and raced without support. It turned out the orthotics were improperly cut, and they’ve since been re-cut and re-inserted into her shoes.
The look on her face usually belies the pain.
“My sophomore year, when it started, I didn’t know how to tolerate it,” Austin said. “Now I’ve learned how to run with my pain.”
Scheidel has had countless coaches come up to her and say they were fans of Austin’s.
“She has so much heart and desire, but she’s also someone that’s amazing to watch,” Scheidel said. “She does not look like she's in pain. She has that natural gazelle stride. She always looks like it's so natural to her.”
Today, after a week off school for Griffith’s fall break, Austin will jog the course, recap her strategies with Scheidel, dine with family and colleagues and prepare for the final kick of a masterful career.
“I feel like I’m leaving a good legacy,” Austin said. “I just hope other kids come out and run, too. I want to inspire kids to run.”
The next big thing in Griffith cross country could be just two years away. Austin’s sister Trinity is in seventh grade.