SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA, December 11 — If you didn’t know much about newly crowned Eastbay Nationals champion Natalie Cook before Saturday, her 5000m tour of Balboa Park served up a perfect microcosm of her prep career.
Get out strong. See it nearly slip away. Finish as a champion.
Cook (Flower Mound, Lewisville, Texas) capped off a storybook season for her school’s program in general and the Cook family in particular with a Texas-sized team effort in becoming the first girl from the Lone Star State to win the national crown.
She joined her mom, the former Melissa Gulli (who placed 23rd at the ’97 Foot Locker meet), in a rare group of mother/daughter finalists. Her dad Andrew coached the Flower Mound team to the state 6A championship this fall. Both parents starred at Texas A&M, with mom eventually competing at the Olympic Trials.
Cook shared the pacesetting duties here during the first pass of the famed double-loop layout before maneuvering into the lead as the 40-runner amoeba began to retrace into the second circuit.
Despite a knock-kneed gait that left some onlookers surprised at her ability to seize the lead in a race of high caliber, the Oklahoma State signee stretched her advantage over the pack to 9 seconds early into the third mile.
From there, however, both Angelina Perez (Lakeland Regional, Wanaque, New Jersey) and Jenna Mulhern (Henderson, West Chester, Pennsylvania) shaved the deficit away almost entirely. Cook, though, summoned a final surge over the last half mile to extinguish the threat and earn the crown by 2 seconds over Perez with her 17:15.0.
“That was way harder than I was expecting, but the payoff made it worthwhile,” said Cook. “It’s been a long journey, but this was a perfect ending.”
After earning all-state honors in cross country in each of her first two years as a high schooler, her exaggerated pronation led to challenges traced to her foot strike on uneven surfaces; a broken navicular bone and a metatarsal fracture were among the casualties that claimed much of her track season as a junior.
But in a critical adjustment, Andrew Cook retooled her training and racing schedule for her senior year of cross country as her load plunged to less than 20 miles per week while incorporating swimming and biking into her fitness regimen. Equally important, great care was given to running on types of terrain causing fewer lateral stresses.
It was magical fine-tuning that led to a magical ending. The weekend before Eastbay Nationals, Cook beat another stellar field at the Garmin RunningLane Championships. As such, Cook defeated both top fields to become the “unified” champion in an NXN/Eastbay era where the top girl in most years would be unable to compete at both meets due to scheduling conflicts.
EASTBAY GIRLS RESULTS
Teams: 1. Northeast 29; 2. Midwest 54; 3. West 63; 4. South 65.
1. Natalie Cook (South) 17:15.0; 2. Angelina Perez (Northeast) 17:19.7; 3. Jenna Mulhern (Northeast) 17:20.8; 4. Karrie Baloga (Northeast) 17:29.1; 5. Riley Stewart (Midwest) 17:30.3; 6. Kate Peters (West) 17:34.0; 7. Sophia Kennedy (Midwest) 17:34.7; 8. Mia Cochran (Northeast) 17:35.2; 9. Sophia Nordenholz (West) 17:36.7; 10. Caroline Wells (South) 17:38.4;
11. Ali Weimer (Midwest) 17:39.1; 12. Zariel Macchia (Northeast) 17:43.3; 13. Arianne Olson (Midwest) 17:43.4; 14. Irene Riggs (South) 17:48.5; 15. Sadie Engelhardt (West) 17:51.5; 16. Kaiya Robertson (West) 17:51.9; 17. Olivia Williams (West) 17:55.1; 18. Ava Parekh (Midwest) 17:57.6; 19. Lilly Shapiro (Northeast) 17:58.0; 20. Gretchen Farley (Midwest) 17:59.8;
21. Lauren Pansegrau (Midwest) 18:07.5; 22. Lauren Ping (West) 18:08.9; 23. Karina James (Midwest) 18:12.7; 24. Julia Flynn (Midwest) 18:13.5; 25. Nelah Roberts (West) 18:14.2; 26. Ciara O’Shea (South) 18:17.0; 27. Anna McNatt (West) 18:18.8; 28. Juliette Whittaker (Northeast) 18:19.8; 29. Emily Toth-Ratazzi (Northeast) 18:21.1; 30. Taylor Rohatinsky (West) 18:22.1;
31. Abby Faith Cheeseman (South) 18:22.7; 32. Aishling Callanan (West) 18:25.7; 33. Rachel Forsyth (Midwest) 18:41.2; 34. Thais Rolly (South) 18:41.3; 35. Ava Gordon (South) 18:41.7; 36. Allie Zealand (South) 18:41.8; 37. Daphne Banino (Northeast) 19:29.4; 38. Maddie Gardiner (South) 19:58.5;… dnf—Ellie Shea (Northeast), Crawford West (South). ◻︎