The premise seems preposterous, really, reminiscent of Roy Hobbs seemingly coming out of nowhere in “The Natural.” But the story of Amelia Arrieta, a senior cross-country runner at St. Teresa’s Academy, is entirely true. And it’s as refreshing and uplifting as it is improbable.
Now, it’s remarkable enough that last month she ran the fastest Missouri girls high school 5K time (17 minutes, 24 seconds) since 2015 and broke the course record at Gans Creek in Columbia by almost 40 seconds … 31 seconds ahead of last year’s Missouri Class 5 state champion and previous record-holder, Ally Kruger of Liberty Wentzville.
It’s striking enough that Arrieta’s time made her the eighth-fastest runner in state history. It was 25th-best in the nation this year at the time, and now ranks 55th. And she’ll have a chance to enhance her credentials all the more when she and her teammates compete in the district meet Saturday in Lee’s Summit, with the state championship meet looming Nov. 5 in Columbia.
No wonder her family and coach Karen Moran Redlich are inundated with calls from college recruiters from Alabama and Duke and Florida State and Georgetown and Villanova and Wake Forest — plus a host of local schools, and dozens more.
“It’s a bit overwhelming,” Arrieta said Tuesday at St. Teresa’s. “It’s like I’m in the eye of the storm, and I see everything kind of flying by and (I’m) trying to make sense of it all.”
Especially since it’s hard to make sense of the situation to begin with, since she has almost literally become an overnight sensation.
Because the first 5K cross country race of her life was Sept. 4.
Because Arrieta had never run at all until March, when she went out for track on a whim “to try something different” after being cut from the basketball team last fall. She was devastated by that. It made the dark, cold winter feel like it would never end.
Now, though, that’s part of the inspiring appeal and example in her story: She started finding out who she really is by trying something new … even if there was little in her past or immediate family background to suggest she would flourish in athletics — unless you count the fact that her proud parents, Maria and Alejandro, met while salsa dancing.
She fared plenty well in track, though, including running a 5:16 in the 1,600 to finish ninth at state. But for broader context, that time was 1,571st in the nation, and nothing really foretold what would happen in cross country.
She was actually reluctant to join the cross country team, what with hating running longer distances and all. Also, well, she had long thought people in cross country were out of their minds.
“You want to read my college essay? It’s all about it,” she said, laughing — the essay was called “Help I Joined A Cult.”
Summarizing, she said, “Because it just seems so ritualistic and they did all these crazy things … Running three miles every Saturday as fast as you can just seems nuts.”
Now, she added, “It’s kind of like if I would have never gotten out of my comfort zone, I would have never discovered any of this.”
More than anything else, she relishes being part of the team. It’s not a cult, she discovered; it’s a family culture that made her feel she belonged in ways she hadn’t known before. That camaraderie and sense of being part of something bigger than herself explains why her purest motivation is what her performance can do for the team.
So she loves the feeling before a race of what she called “a common chill in the air.” And she loves the end, when she’s finished what she calls an “out of body experience,” and can share in what she playfully describes as “surviving this horrible thing together.”
That’s part of why Coach Moran, as she’s known to her team, says, “She radiates joy every single day.”
So much so that you often will see Arrieta smiling as she runs (even if she allows it might be a grimace by the end of a race).
That spirit also tells you why she talks so much about her teammates, and why she waits for each at the finish line.
Not to mention that she usually bakes something for them. Full disclosure: When we met, she offered up a leftover Oreo ball. (How could I say no? And it was great.)
Maybe it all sounds too good to be true, including the part where she is a straight-A student and excelled in the ACT.
But it’s real, even if she can’t explain it and Moran has never seen anything like it in more than 20 years of coaching. She’s coached many successful runners, and plenty went on to compete in college. But their improvement was normally incremental over a four-year period — not, say, 50 seconds faster than the week before, like it was for Arrieta at Gans Creek in her fourth-ever race.
Sure, she knows Arrieta is 5 foot, 2 inches of muscle, and that she attended running club all summer. But ...
“It’s hard to pinpoint how this is happening; I truly don’t have a great answer to give you,” Moran said. “There is just something inside of her, a drive, a sense of purpose and being a great teammate.”
As for her future sense of purpose, Arrieta is interested in sports medicine and/or becoming a doctor. But she also hopes she has a long way to go in running, and she’ll have options about where to do that.
Unlike most recruits who have been hearing from schools for more than a year, though, she has had almost no time to process her success. So the flurry of interest will take time to sort through, meaning the high-pressure tactics (one program wanted an answer in 24 hours) will only backfire.
“They made it sound like she’d be so lucky to go there,” Moran said. “That’s not how I see it; I see it as a school is going to be lucky to get her.”
True story. Even if Sydney Swan, whom Arrieta calls the “heart and soul of this team,” tells her, “Kid, you came out of nowhere.”
Naturally enough, as it happens.