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SMC Cross Country: Gray overcomes injuries to set pace for Belles’ program

Matt Gamber | Thursday, November 15, 2007

When Megan Gray crosses the finish line at the Division III National Championships this Saturday, it will mark the end of a four-year career in which Gray accomplished a series of firsts in a cross country program that she has helped to redefine.

“Megan has been a turning point for Saint Mary’s cross country,” said third-year coach Jackie Bauters, calling Gray a “driving force” for the up-and-coming program. “If you would have asked five years ago if Saint Mary’s would ever make it to the national meet, people would probably laugh. We’re on the map now.”

Gray became the first Belles runner to be named to the all-MIAA first team and the first to qualify for nationals – and she did both twice. She finished first for Saint Mary’s in every race over the past two seasons, and she captured the individual title in three meets.

“I couldn’t be more proud or happy for her to have achieved everything she has over her career,” Bauters said. “She deserves everything she’s worked for. I just wish she had another year with us.”

Gray’s road to success, however, was not always a smooth one. In the spring of her freshman year, Gray was slowed by knee trouble that was eventually diagnosed as patella femoral pain syndrome, a result of a runner’s natural tendency to overdevelop the outer quadriceps.

“I’d never really done any leg lifting at all because my coaches had always told us that running was enough of a workout,” said Gray, who suffered “a runner’s equivalent of torture” by not being able to run the summer before her sophomore year. “Coming back for my sophomore season, I was out of shape and had no base at all.”

So Gray, after undergoing physical therapy to strengthen her inner quad muscles, had to start from scratch – a trying experience, to say the least.

“My first run back, I just did one lap around the lake at Notre Dame,” Gray said. “It was probably the worst thing I’ve ever done because it was so hard and I felt so out of shape. Now I totally understand why people never want to start running, because it was terrible – but once I was able to break through that wall, I got back into shape.”

After running in just two races as a sophomore, Gray came back “with no expectations other than to stay healthy,” she said.

“Runners are a unique breed,” Gray said. “We’re kind of crazy as far as mental strategies go. I just want to feel good when I’m running, stay healthy and feel strong. Improving my time every week is definitely something I want to do, but I just want to feel good when I’m running.”

And, other than some brief bouts with tendonitis in her feet and her Achilles, Gray has remained injury-free, much to the credit of her head coach.

“Jackie and I have worked closely to figure out how to keep me healthy,” Gray said, noting the more structured training regimens and the added expectations of Bauters, who became head coach before Gray’s sophomore year.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot about what my body can and cannot handle over the past four years. Without [Bauters], I wouldn’t have been able to get to this level.”

For all Gray has taken from Bauters, she has given it all back to the program – and then some, Bauters said.

“The girls on the team see Megan’s success and believe in it. They believe in themselves and their ability to do things that once seemed out of reach,” Bauters said. “Nothing can top giving the gift of confidence to a group of young, talented women. Success is contagious, and they all want to be a part of it, which is a really exciting thing.”

A change in attitude around the program was evident, Bauters said, even in her preseason meetings with the team. She noted freshman Mary McDonnell, who has made nationals a concrete goal for herself, despite injuries throughout her rookie season.

“[McDonnell] is focused, she is driven, but mostly, she has a great role model,” Bauters said.

That role model, without a doubt, is Megan Gray.

“Going into this season, I was hoping to run with [Gray], and I hoped she would push me to new goals and better times,” said McDonnell, who has benefited from Gray despite her injuries. “Megan has really helped in the process of recovering from my injury by giving me advice … and she has been a great friend and role model.”

Even though Gray’s college cross-country career will end Saturday, her legacy ensures “there’s more to come in the future” for Saint Mary’s, Bauters said. Gray, meanwhile, has faith that her coach will take her younger teammates to new heights.

“Jackie is amazing, and there’s no telling where this program can go from here with her leadership,” Gray said. “I may have accomplished some firsts for the Saint Mary’s cross country program, but I know I won’t be the last or only.”

The Division III Cross Country Championships will start at 11 a.m Saturday at St. Olaf’s in Northfield, Minn.