SEATTLE - Out of the thousands of high school athletes that participate in cross country and track every year in the state of Washington, only a handful will finish at the head of the pack and earn a coveted state title. The title chances in this state were even more scarce over the past five years, however, as three women combined to run off with twenty-nine titles between them.
Maddie Meyers, Katie Knight, and Amy-Eloise Neale probably should invest in some rented storage space, as no mantle in the world is large enough to support their prep achievements. The trio dominated the local scene like very few before them, Meyers at the 1A level and Knight and Neale battling in seemingly every 3A state final. They made their names nationally known, winning elite titles like Meyers at the Jim Ryun Dream Mile, and representing Team USA (Knight) and Team Great Britain (Neale) at junior world championships.
And now they’re all Huskies.
“I think we had all talked about it plenty of times before, like ‘Oh, it would be so cool to go to school together and be on the same team,’ but in the back of your head you never think it’s going to pan out,” said Meyers, now a sophomore and the first of the three to make the leap.
On Saturday in Springfield, Oregon, Husky Head Coach Greg Metcalf was able to see this particular Northwest Dream Team in action together for the first time. Neale made her college debut and led UW to the win at the Bill Dellinger Invitational with a third-place finish, while Knight and Meyers crossed the line side by side in ninth- and tenth-place in identical times.
“It’s a dream come true from a coaching standpoint,” says Metcalf. “This has been in the works for years. For us to land three of the best girls in the history of the state of Washington, it’s exciting. They’ve been so great with each other. Amy and Katie being on our campus I think has elevated Maddie’s game a little bit too.”
FORMING A BOND
Flotrack.org ranked Washington’s freshman class third nationally, calling Knight and Neale “two of the most highly touted preps in the nation.” While the program’s outstanding run of success (five top-10 NCAA cross country finishes in the last six years), great academics and everything the city of Seattle has to offer might have factored into Knight and Neale’s decisions, Meyers gets a little credit herself in securing their skills.
“Maddie is the greatest recruiter ever,” Knight says matter-of-factly. The two freshmen had a familiarity and trust with Meyers built up over their entire racing careers.
“With her,” says Neale, “I didn’t have to think, ‘Are they actually telling me how it is here?’ Maddie is just super open about it.”
Knight echoes that sentiment. “It’s fun to have a host you actually know, because other people can feel like they need to entertain you, but with her you can just hang out,” she says. “I trusted the people here a lot.”
All three came to distance running at a fairly early age. Meyers, a Seattle native and Northwest School grad danced ballet all through elementary school, then when school sports entered the picture she tried soccer, basketball, and a little ultimate Frisbee along with track.
"I didn’t think she was a freshman. When they called her up on the podium and said ‘And freshman Amy-Eloise’ I was like ‘no way, she’s a senior!’"
Growing up in Spokane, Knight was into multiple sports and hated having to pick and choose based on the high school seasons. “I was so devastated when I found out that girls can’t do both soccer and cross country,” she says. “I was also really into the swim team. I kind of always knew I was going to be a runner, but I dabbled in other things. I wasn’t very good except for the fact that I could get to the balls first.”
Neale, born in England before her family moved to America at a young age, has had running as a lifelong passion growing up in Snohomish, Washington. Apart from a short early stint with gymnastics, getting perennially faster and faster on the track has been the goal.
Their paths started to cross before they even reached high school.
“I think I was in fifth grade and Maddie was in sixth,” Neale says about the first time she can recall racing with Meyers. “It was all the Junior Olympic age group stuff, and Maddie was running for Rain City Flyers,” referring to a local youth club that Neale herself ran with the previous year in the lower age group.
“So we were almost on the same team then,” says Meyers.
“I just remember you killed me on Woodland Park every time,” Neale says to the always-smiling Meyers.
Knight, the Spokane native and North Central grad, remembers the moment when it dawned on her that this Neale girl would be a force that would have to be reckoned with for her career.
“The first time I raced Amy was at Costa Cross, it was my first high school race ever. I didn’t think she was a freshman,” Knight says. “When they called her up on the podium and said ‘And freshman Amy-Eloise’ I was like ‘no way, she’s a senior!’”
Neale ran away with the win by forty seconds that day in Idaho, with Knight taking second-place. At their first 3A state meet in 2009, Knight closed the gap, but Neale got her first title by just one second. The two would be first and second at every state cross country race from 2009-12, with Neale winning three, and Knight winning in 2011.
LEAVING IT ALL ON THE TRACK
With all that constant competition, including constant state track finals, regional and national championships, spectators assume a heated rivalry must have developed. Glares on the starting line? Elbows in the hidden parts of the cross country course? The three say that some people might have wanted that juicy plot twist, but it was never there.
Meyers says their parents would hear some of it watching as spectators, “Because no one knows what your parents look like, so they would hear ‘Oh yeah, Katie and Amy-Eloise, they’re always competing against each other and they’re not so nice to each other.’ Or ‘Maddie and Katie don’t like each other,’ which is just total lies. I feel like people want there to be this drama.”
Knight and Neale were competitive on the track, they explain, but that was where it stayed. “After races we would be cooling down together,” says Knight.
More than just friendly, the three were downright thankful for the success of their “rivals” during their high school careers.
“I think that in high school if you don’t have good competition you’re not going to get anywhere, so in the end we were actually grateful for each other,” says Knight.
Neale agrees that the competition only fueled her. “I definitely would not have tried as hard in workouts and races if there wasn’t someone pushing me.”
Meyers did not get to test herself as often against the other elites in the state, as many of her 1A state titles were runaways. That just made the chances that did come up all the more special.
“I remember my coach saying ‘okay, this is the one meet where Katie and Amy are going to be there…’ They had state which is a big one for them, but I remember Pasco being a big one because we were all there.”
Thinking about some of the Pasco Invitational showdowns leads Katie to mention a photo from one race that reveals it might have been another former Washington state champ who helped kickstart the recruiting efforts.
Current Huskies Katie Knight, Baylee Mires, Amy-Eloise Neale, and Maddie Meyers at the 2011 Pasco Invite. Maddie would hold on for the win that day.
“I have a picture on my magnet board in my dorm of Maddie, Amy, Baylee Mires and I all racing in our high school uniforms at Pasco in a mile,” says Knight. “It’s one of my favorite pictures. We’re all in a row.”
Turns out that Mires, the 800-meter school record holder, held a pretty big influence over the state track scene from Spokane, where she ran for Mead and racked up seven 4A state titles.
“Everyone knew Baylee and wanted to be Baylee,” says Knight, and Meyers agrees that “Baylee was definitely the cool kid of running.”
“At one point Baylee was in this phase where she dyed her hair a bunch of weird colors,” remembers Knight, “and I swear every single person in Spokane had different colored hair at those track meets. I definitely did, I dyed my hair blue for a while.”
FINDING THE BEST FIT
Is the abundance of local talent in recent years just a stroke of luck? The three don’t think it’s a coincidence.
“Once you see one person and all their accomplishments and what they’ve been able to do, it kind of fuels the fire,” says Meyers. “Other people want to do it. I think it’s pretty cool that we have such a big Washington group on the team.”
When the Huskies won the program’s first national title back in 2008, the only Washingtonian in the top-seven at NCAAs was Amanda Miller, a five-time All-American from Wenatchee, though locals Kenna Patrick and Kailey Campbell were key contributors in the top-10. Meyers, Knight and Neale were vaguely aware of the team’s success, but they were still in the earliest stages of their careers, in eighth and ninth grades.
Neale says that at the time she wasn’t clued into the college scene, “But looking at that picture in Metcalf’s office of them with the trophy, they just look so happy, it’s so cool.”
"You’re not going into a race alone and knowing you’re going to be ahead of your team, there are going to be all these women you train with every day with you in that race."
In 2011, the Huskies took second at nationals, led by current Dawgs Katie Flood and Megan Goethals, who both finished in the top-20. The Huskies were without a local in the top-seven in Terre Haute, but the following indoor season would see Sammamish native Chelsea Orr team with Baylee Mires from Spokane, sprinter Jordan Carlson from Spokane, and Flood, to win the program’s first NCAA distance medley relay title.
“I think I was more aware when they got second that year because that was when I was starting to think about college,” says Knight.
Meyers and Neale would train some nights during the offseason in the Dempsey, where UW annually hosts some of the NCAA’s fastest indoor track meets. “You start to see girls (succeeding in college) that you recognize from high school and think ‘Wow, that would be pretty cool,’” Meyers says.
Knight and Neale both looked at Colorado and Stanford before committing to Washington. They even took their visit to Stanford together. Still, they were certainly not a packaged deal, and made their choices independently based on what felt right to each.
“It was a personal decision for both of us,” says Neale. “Katie committed before me, then I committed the day before state for cross country. I remember on our cool down after state we were just super excited.”
Knight believed the Huskies were the team where she fit in best. Neale felt the same way.
“Washington was my last visit,” says Neale, “and coming here I knew all these schools academically are really good, but when I came here I fit in really well with the coaches and the team.”
Both of the newcomers are already setting their sights on rigorous majors, with Knight considering structural engineering and Neale molecular biology.
“College is supposed to challenge you, because it’s the next step,” says Knight, “but I just find myself waking up every day and being really, really happy here.”
Neale is also enjoying the transition, having a host of Huskies to run with every day as part of a pack. “You’re not going into a race alone and knowing you’re going to be ahead of your team, there are going to be all these women you train with every day with you in that race,” she says. “It’s definitely the right place for me.”
Happy at home, the three hope to continue leading a Purple & Golden Age for Washington distance running.