For Spence, running is in the blood

August 29, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

SHIPPENSBURG, PA. - Credit sibling rivalry for getting Neely Spence back into competitive racing form.

More than a year ago, 13-year-old Neely was acting in community theater, taking a break from running because races made her nervous.

That changed in the spring of 2003 when her younger twin sisters started running.

"That doesn't work for me," said Neely, now 14. There was no way she was going to let her little sisters become faster than she.

She's doing well enough that her name was mentioned when Cumberland Valley Athletic Club President and Team Coordinator Mike Spinnler was asked who in the local area one day could take a serious shot at making the Olympic team.


"She has the components that could produce that Olympic-class athlete," Spinnler said. Neely is physically gifted, enjoys running and has a good genetic inheritance from her parents, he said.

Her mother, Kirsten Harteis, was a distance runner and her father, Steve Spence, was the top American marathon finisher at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. He came in 12th.

Neely, who lives near Shippensburg, says the Olympics seems like a lifetime away.

She has watched some of the Olympic track events on television this past week.

"I've never really pictured myself there, but I just don't know," she said. "At this point in my life, I don't know where my life is going to take me."

Spence said she qualified to go to a state meet when she was 11, but her parents held her back because they didn't want to push her.

At the time, it was not in Neely's or the family's best interests for her to go to the state meet, Harteis said. Talent needs to be developed and matured when the timing is correct, she said.

"Maturity is a huge issue that allows talent to develop or creates a barrier at which the talent is stopped," Harteis said.

Neely said she stopped running in the fall of 2002 because running wasn't fun anymore. At races, she would get nervous and her stomach would crunch up.

But the fun has returned for Spence, who averages a 7 minute, 15 second mile during training runs and easily can run seven miles in an hour.

Her goal for now is to keep it fun, work hard and try to get faster.

Earlier this month, competing at the 2004 North American Final Meet sponsored by Hershey Foods Corp., she placed second in the 1,600-meter run for girls 13 to 14. She finished in 5 minutes, 9 seconds.

To get to that event, Spence had to compete in local, district and state meets. She not only had to win her state meet, but had to have the fastest time in her region, said Kim Lowe, an intern with Hershey's Track and Field Youth Program.

A home-schooler who cannot compete in school-sanctioned events, Neely is preparing for the cross-country season.

She is working to compete in a Foot Locker cross-country regional in November in hopes of making it to the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships in San Diego in December.

"If you make it to the championships, that's big," Neely said. "You're just happy to make it."

For now, it's slow steps, said Neely and her mother.

"She's older now," Harteis said. "She has the maturity and discipline to take slow, small steps toward her development."

As Neely takes those steps, she could get closer to seeing the Olympics on the horizon, Harteis said.

"It is so sacrificial, that road," Harteis said.

If Neely decides she wants to train for the Olympics, the family knows through Neely's father's experience what it takes to get there. Taking that path requires commitment, sacrifice and a narrow focus, Harteis said.

"The Olympics is miles away compared to the tiny steps we're looking at right now," Harteis said.

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