Wednesday, November 22, 2023
Planning and training get results, and Isabella Switalski has the medal to prove it. Isabella, a senior at Reagan College Preparatory High School, took 6th place at the recent WIAA state girls cross country championship.
Isabella, the first girl from MPS to place in the top 10 since 1976, stood on the awards podium in Wisconsin Rapids with the other top finishers — just as she planned.
“I essentially had it planned for a year,” she said.
Isabella started preparing for this year’s championship race right after the 2022 race. She sat at her desk to take notes in her journal: What worked? What didn’t?
It became her goal to make it to the top 10 at state. She thought she might finish 9th; her cross country coach thought she could do even better, at 8th place.
Isabella not only took 6th place, she ran the course in 18 minutes, 44 seconds, beating her school record by 2 seconds. The only other runner in the top 10 to break her own personal record was the state champion, Isabella said.
Isabella’s plan for her final appearance at state is an example of what cross country coach Joseph Duellman means when he says, “She’s developed a cerebral approach that’s served her well.”
Certainly, Isabella has become stronger and faster since she began running track in the spring of her freshman year and cross country her sophomore year, he said, but running a race as long as a 5K also requires strategic thinking.
Isabella has qualified for state every season she’s run cross country (she missed it her freshman year in 2020 because of the pandemic). She used each of those experiences to craft her strategy for her final appearance at state on October 28.
Running 5Ks at 9 years old
She wasn’t new to running; she began running public 5k races at age 9 with her mother, Rita Switalski, and joined the group Girls on the Run in 4th grade, when Isabella was a student at A.E. Burdick School.
At Reagan High School, she found she enjoyed competing as a team when she started running track. “That was a new experience for me,” she said.
Then she began running cross country. Isabella had run plenty of 5k races but never on grass, and never with that big a field of people her age. “I instantly fell in love with cross country,” she said.
“Each race is unpredictable,” Isabella said. “You don’t know what is going to happen.” Courses are unique, and the weather can be harsh.
Too passive, then too fast
Running in her first state cross country championship as a sophomore, Isabella recalled, she was very passive in her start. When the course began to close in, she tripped over another runner. Last year, as a junior, she overcompensated, Isabella said. “I ended up starting too fast and got exhausted.” She became discouraged as runners passed her.
This year, as a senior with two years of experience, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do and where I belonged in the race. It was all a matter of execution,” Isabella said. “This year I held back a little so I could pace myself better,” she added.
Duellman observed, “I think that experience running in that race was huge. It’s a pretty big, overwhelming event.”
‘Everyone there is a top dog’
The state championship race comprises Wisconsin’s best high school runners, and each of them is used to being in front. At state, “pretty much everyone there is a top dog,” he said. Isabella’s having been there before “really helped boost her confidence. She knew what it was going to be like,” he added.
“No one else at that race was more experienced with that course than I was. It was a level playing field for me,” Isabella said.
The state course, at Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids, is challenging, “even from the beginning. The beginning is huge. The race is almost 200 people, so the start line is very long,” Isabella said. In 150 meters or so, it narrows to the width of a small road just as there’s a turn, so all the runners are squeezing in.
The course is also very hilly, with many short, steep hills and a couple of longer climbs. “The downhill is almost harder,” where it’s tricky to gauge speed, Isabella said. She began lifting weights regularly before high school to increase her strength but also has incorporated training on hills. “There’s no way to get better at running hills than running hills,” she said.
Scenarios with coaches
Two days before the race, Isabella spoke in detail with all her coaches, including Brandt Champion and Brittany Nohl, about strategy and actions to take throughout the race. She also knew where her coaches would be during the race to cheer her on and to relay her ranking as she passed.
“By the time I stepped on that start line, I knew what I was going to do and how I was going to do it. And I knew that I could do it, which is the most important part,” Isabella said.
Knowing that Isabella wakes up at 4 a.m. weekdays to lift weights and run before school but also is conscientious about her classwork, Duellman said, “she worked for this, and it paid off.”
It came as a bit of a relief to him, he said, “to see someone who truly, genuinely deserved it achieve something so wonderful.”
Isabella still will be running after she graduates from Reagan High School in spring. She committed to run track and cross country for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she will receive an athletic scholarship and where she plans to major in computer science.