Ward Melville spring track and field head coach J.P. Dion sent a text to his 4×800-meter girls relay team the day of the national race: “Believe in yourself, like I believe in you.”
The girls had shaved 15 seconds off their time and bested a school record in the process at the state-qualifying meet a few weeks earlier. Despite a letdown, falling to sixth after going in as the No. 2 seed in the state meet, the Patriots believed and pushed themselves to the limit to reverse the drop in the standings with a third-place finish at the New Balance Nationals in North Carolina June 18. Placing in the Top 6 also earned them All-American status.
“They have that fire, and they harnessed it,” Dion said. “They’re more than willing to work, and there’s big things to come here at Ward Melville with these girls.”
The quartet of soon-to-be seniors Sam Rutt, Sam Sturgess and Allyson Gaedje and will-be sophomore Elizabeth Radke started the 2017 season like any other. The four had competed in both the 4×800 and 4×400 relay, outrunning the school record for the latter in 2016. As the weeks passed, the girls weren’t sure which race would be the focus come county and state championship-time. That is, until the school record-shattering 9 minute, 1.81 second finish at the state-qualifying meet at Warwick Valley High School.
The team needed to finish second or better to be able to compete in the state championship. With anchor Gaedje, or “Gator” as her teammates call her, racing to a hard-fought finish against a top-tier competitor in Shoreham-Wading River’s Katherine Lee, she knew it’d come down to the wire.
“I always race against her, so I knew it’d be difficult, but I just wanted to do my best,” she said.
In a photo finish, Lee beat out Gaedje for second place. Despite the loss, the girls celebrated their historic run. They were competing on a Saturday, and had finished the race in 9:16.61 that previous Tuesday, less than 4/10ths of a second off the state standard of 9:17, which was needed to qualify to compete in the state meet.
“That’s when we knew we had what it takes,” Radke said.
Her teammates agreed, especially after easily surpassing the 2011 school record of 9:10.56.
“We were hoping just to get the state standard — we thought the school record was almost untouchable,” Rutt said. “It was really emotional. We went to the tent to grab our stuff and Sam [Sturgess] and Gator were hugging each other on the track, and J.P. Dion called us over and asked us why we’re crying.”
That’s when the Patriots found out Shoreham-Wading River had been disqualified following a judgment call from one of the officials. Lee had changed lanes rounding a bend, instead of taking the straight path, which officials argued forced Gaedje to run a longer distance.
“I was perfectly fine not going to states because they ran their socks off,” Dion said. “They really performed well. Just the fight in that race was good enough for me as a coach.”
The girls’ race game wasn’t up to par come states, and they knew that after a big letdown, they needed to believe in themselves, like Dion said, in order to pull out an All-American finish.
“After we ran a 9:01, we realized it’s time to get serious, and we can do something other than just show up,” Sturgess said. “Competing in that atmosphere gets you serious.”
As the leadoff runner, Sturgess knew she needed to set the tone.
“I had to get us off to a good start,” she said. “I wanted to be in the Top 6 to get us that All-American status. That’s what we’ve been working on and working toward. We were motivated.”
She made her way to sixth before she handed the baton off to Radke, who said she has always had a problem controlling her anxiety heading into a race.
“I was freaking out,” she said, laughing while still showing that nervousness. “I kept telling myself ‘maintain and kick, maintain and kick.’ I didn’t want to get passed, because that gets me down, so I kept my spot, and ended up moving up a couple of spots before handing off to my teammate and hoping for the best.”
Rutt was next in line, who helped move the team to fourth before passing the baton to Gaedje.
“It was a little bit of a mind game, because we had to think to states and remember how bad we did and how we needed to pick it up,” Rutt said. “It’s cool to see what you can do when you put your mind to it. It’s so mental — how far you can push your body. The way Gator races, she’s so driven. I knew that as long as I got her in a good enough spot that’d be good enough for us.”
As she crossed the finish line, Gaedje said she couldn’t believe what her Patriots had done.
“My head was a little fuzzy,” she said, laughing. “I was a little tired, my legs were burning, and it took a little while to process, but my teammates came over and hugged me. I couldn’t believe it.”