Distancing herself from the pack

Leadership is an instinct. Some people have it, others don't.

But there is a third group of people that are natural-born leaders and don't even know it -- or have yet to realize it.

Hood River Valley junior cross-country star Christy Paul is one such individual. She may not be the most vocal runner on the team, but she doesn't have to be. She leads by example. "Christy has been a tremendous leader for our team all season," coach Kristen Uhler said. "She's a true competitor and that has helped everyone on the team continue to get better."

Paul has stepped to the forefront of the Oregon high school cross-country circuit over the past two seasons, breaking course records on a weekly basis, and leaving every opponent in her wake -- her average margin of victory, one minute.

She won third in the state individual competition last season, and has established herself as the clear-cut favorite to win this year's state meet (see story in sports), which took place Nov. 3 in Eugene.

But as much as she likes to compete, the soft-spoken Paul isn't as fond of the attention and expectations that go along with this level of success.

"I try not to think about it much," she said. "Last year was different because I wasn't expected to do as well. This year the whole community expects me to win and that's been hard. I don't want to disappoint them."

If the track record she established over the Mt. Hood Conference season is any indication, the only people who will be disappointed after Saturday's race will be her competition.

Paul has posted record times all season -- most recently breaking the Centennial High School course record by 14 seconds at the Oct. 24 district meet -- and the faster she goes, the faster her team seems to go.

By setting such a positive example this season, Paul and fellow team leader, senior Laurissa Pennington, guided the Eagles to second place in the MHC, a berth in the state meet, and a No. 10 state ranking.

But Paul doesn't feel comfortable taking credit for the team’s accomplishments this season.

"I'm still a beginner myself -- just another runner on the team," she said. "Some of the other runners might look to me for leadership, but I don't really feel any pressure to lead them.

"We're all good friends and have bonded really well as a team this season. Coach Uhler deserves most of the credit for getting us here. She has taught us how to balance running with the rest of our lives."

Despite Paul's reluctance to accept responsibility for the Eagles' success this season, teammates Allison Byers, Emily Meyer, Suni Davis, Kristen Hedges, and Jenny Villagomez have undeniably benefitted from Paul's presence.

Each runner pushed herself to get closer to Paul's times, and as a result, they all set personal records at a blistering rate, seemingly at every meet.

Like her coach, leading by example has become Paul's biggest strength. She may not have the exuberant, "rah rah" personality that Uhler possesses, but her dedication and drive can never be questioned.

"I've just tried to stay focused throughout the season," said Paul, who trained all summer with Uhler and a handful of other HRV runners to prepare for the season ahead.

"Coach Uhler really pushed us this year and got the most out of every runner. She really helped us with the mental aspect of running and challenged us to go beyond what we think we're capable of," she said. "I know the intense training helped me because as my workouts improved, so did my attitude."

Paul explained that it was difficult for her to remain focused at times during the season because she was so far ahead of the pack at every meet.

"I like to win and improve my times," she said, "but it started to get a little old winning by that much. The trip to California (Oct. 13-14) helped me regain my focus.

"That race was a great experience for the team and for me, personally," she said.

Perhaps it was the change in scenery or climate, but whatever it was, it worked. After winning the hill-wracked, 2.6-mile race, Paul rediscovered the drive that has helped her become a standout, and ran with it -- literally.

She rode a new wave of confidence and determination into the team’s final dual meet versus league-champ Centennial, and the district meet on Oct. 24.

Whatever it was that clicked inside Paul rubbed off on her teammates, because the Eagles cruised to second place in the district while achieving a new level of team unity -- each runner finishing in the top 27.

Just as Uhler had hoped, the girls are peaking at the right time. They put everything on the line last Saturday at state as they attempted to surpass a strong Centennial squad and garner a top 10 place at state.

"We're ready, both physically and mentally," Paul said. "This is what we've worked for all year."

Regardless of how the Eagles perform at the state meet, they still have a bright future -- as long as they continue to follow their leader.

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