RAWLINS – The parking lot at Rawlins High School is both the busiest and the loneliest place in town on a Friday afternoon.
At around 2:30 p.m., good luck trying to make a left turn into the parking lot as a line of cars will block your path.
At 2:45 pm, you could get away with whatever debauchery your heart desires in that parking lot. Students have raced away and faculty and staff are ready to enjoy a hard-earned weekend.
On the Friday before the official start of winter sports, local high school athletes were savoring their final “free weekend” for a while. Not to mention, on this particular Friday, the wind was whipping and the most recent piles of snow were creating ground blizzards that made it hard to see clearly.
If you pulled into the parking lot last Friday afternoon and looked east toward Outlaw Stadium, however, you might have seen someone making her way through the slush and drifted snow, down toward the track. Her signature long, blonde ponytail and lean runner’s physique are a dead giveaway. Local phenom Sydney Thorvaldson was about to get in a recovery workout as part of her preparation for the Nike Cross Nationals in December.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know Thorvaldson is good at running. Like, really good at running. In her third appearance at the Nike Cross Northwest Regional race in Boise, Idaho she left spectators and fellow runners stunned by her dominant performance. Not only did she win the race, she beat a field consisting of the absolute best high school cross country runners in the region, by around 15 seconds. She also shattered the course record with her 16:50 time. The course in Boise is considered one of the toughest in the region, yet Thorvaldson ran her second best time of the season there.
What would you expect a teenager who delivered that kind of performance on one of the biggest stages in her sport to do? Take a week or so off? Enjoy a few nights out with friends? For Thorvaldson, she partook in a single cheat meal and took one day off from running before getting back to work. And, the thing is, no one had to tell her it was time to get back to training. In fact, her coaches would sometimes like to see her take a little more time off but that, according to her long time coach Nancy Steinberg, is out of the question.
“Getting Sydney to take any time off is like pulling teeth,” said Steinberg. “Even when the weather is like this (referencing the freezing temps, frozen ground and piled snow in Rawlins) Sydney will be outside running. I have never seen an athlete – you get good athletes, strong athletes, dedicated athletes – I don’t think I have ever seen an athlete work as hard or be as dedicated as she is to be at the top. She always wants to improve and get better and be number one in every race.”
For Thorvaldson, she’d much rather run outside than indoors on a treadmill. The only time she opts for indoor runs are when it’s too icy outside and would risk injury. On this past Friday, she had a recovery day after running about 60 miles during the week. She made her way down icy stairs and over drifted snow to get in some strides and other warm-up drills that would prepare her for a quick 3-mile run around town. When asked how she manages to complete quality outdoor workouts in the treacherous conditions in Rawlins during the fall and winter, she literally laughed. That’s what puts Thorvaldson a cut above the rest.
“Well, I needed to get in hills this week, so I needed to run outside,” she said, as if the most obvious answer in the world. “I just love running and I love being competitive, so I just make sure to get my workouts in. I find a way to make it happen.”
Not only does Thorvaldson make it happen, she has consistently improved since she hit the competitive running scene. Steinberg first coached Thorvaldson as a 6th grader on the cross country team. Even then, Steinberg knew there was something special about Sydney. In the five-plus years she’s been running in a Rawlins jersey, Thorvaldson hasn’t lost a race. Every meet on the calendar in both middle school and high school, in Wyoming and Colorado, Thorvaldson has finished in first place. Steinberg has been coaching cross country and track and field for more than three decades. She’s never seen such a feat and is certain she never will again. For her, Thorvaldson is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete.
What’s her secret? How has she been able to solidify herself as arguably the most dominant athlete to ever grace the halls of Rawlins High School, maybe even the state of Wyoming? In talking with Sydney and her mom, Wendy, I admit I expected to find that Sydney had unlocked the key to cutting edge training or new technology. Maybe, like Secretariat, she has a genetic advantage over everyone else. I mean, how can an athlete be so good for so long and continue to improve?
What I learned after visiting with Coach Steinberg and with Sydney and Wendy is that, in truth, there is no secret sauce, no secret training, no secret genetic advantage. Sydney loves running, she loves to compete and she is not afraid of hard work. That combination has made her into the dominant force she is today.
“She’s always loved running,” said Wendy. “Even in preschool her teacher would chuckle because she wanted to race the boys. Before middle school started she would do some fun races, 5Ks and 10Ks. Once she got into middle school and could compete against other kids around the state, she really blossomed.”
She’s also not afraid to sacrifice some of the things that would be considered normal from someone her age. Instead of racing home on a Friday afternoon to grub on junk food and hang out with friends, Sydney headed out for a workout. She usually completes two workouts a day, one before school and one after school. She has a competitive drive and desire to be the best that is not often found in high school athletes. She’s disciplined far beyond her years, too.
Thorvaldson eats a clean diet consisting of whole foods, healthy carbs, protein and vegetables. She doesn’t regulate her diet in a way that makes her feel deprived because she wants to keep running fun. Instead, for her, a healthy diet fuels quality training and gives her a competitive mental edge.
“Healthy foods help my training a lot,” she said. My diet is more of a mental thing for me, too. Eating healthy makes me feel healthy and makes me feel like I can run better.”
In addition to a health-conscious diet, Thorvaldson has also changed some aspects of her training that have helped her see consistent improvement this season. Even though she doesn’t like to take time off from training, she dealt with shin splints last spring which uncovered a weakness she didn’t know she had. According to Wendy, the shin splints were the catalyst for implementing cross training and strength training that has made a difference in her performance this season.
“She suffered some shin splints last season,” said Wendy. “She had to work on physical therapy. They did a lot of tests and found she had hip weaknesses and they worked on strengthening those. She worked on those with cross training, biking and elliptical work. I think that’s really helped her get stronger and has helped with her improvements this season.”
As you can imagine, living in a small town like Rawlins has both advantages and disadvantages for an athlete who has reached national prominence. Despite some of the challenges the less-than-ideal climate and rural setting cause, the Thorvaldson family is committed to making it work in Rawlins for as long as Sydney is still having fun with running. According to Wendy, it’s never crossed her or her husband Chris’ mind to move someplace more convenient. Even though Wyoming, in general, isn’t known for running because of the altitude and harsh weather conditions, the Thorvaldsons believe the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
“She might miss out on a bit of national recognition, but she’s very competitive in different, challenging conditions,” said Wendy. “And, sometimes, we just have to get to sea level to post some better times. We’re in Rawlins to stay, and coach Steinberg and Coach Tillotson are great coaches that are awesome to work with.”
What’s next for Sydney Thorvaldson? Her first-place finish at the NXR Northwest Regional in Boise secured her a position in the National Finals in Portland on Dec. 7. The 2019 National Finals will mark Thorvaldon’s third appearance at the event. A runner has to finish in the top five in one of eight regional qualifying events in order to get to compete in the finals. Of the National Finals, she is more excited than nervous and is confident in her preparation.
“I’m feeling super excited,” said Sydney. “I’m going through the hard part right now, which is training, and it’s been going super well. Despite the weather, I’ve been getting in some great workouts and feeling really good. It’s boosted my confidence.”
When Thorvaldson takes off down the course in Portland, she’ll undoubtedly have an entire town rooting her on. Of the support, she is grateful and has fun running around town, getting waves and honks from Rawlins residents encouraging her during tough workouts. Even though she’s definitely reached local celebrity status, she never fails to stay humble, a trait that her coach is most proud of her for.
“She’s humble as the day is long and is just a sweet, kind person,” said Steinberg.
Thorvaldson is a 4.0 student, an elite athlete and known across the state and nation for her running ability. It would be easy to get a big head and become content with the attention and notoriety she has thus far received. When asked how she manages to stay humble her response was simple:
“I don’t like bragging about myself,” she said. “I don’t think that’s part of being a leader. I like people to see what I can do and I want to prove myself through running, not talking.”
Thorvaldson has certainly let her running do the talking. She will compete in the upcoming Nike Cross Nationals and then maybe take a day or so off before kicking off her indoor track season. She has about a year and a half before finishing high school and college is absolutely part of her plan. Running in college, at this point, is a goal of hers and she plans to go into the medical field after she is finished with school and running.
It’s hard to believe that Sydney would be anything other than successful at whatever she plans to do next. For now, though, winning a national title is at the top of her radar. That said, the next time you’re driving around town and see Sydney bounding down the pavement at a speed incomprehensible to us average folks, give her a honk, send her a wave and know that whatever race she is preparing for, she will be representing her family, town and school with the utmost class and dignity.