Local Olympian's daughter finally free to run

October 08, 2006|by ANDREW MASON

Shippensburg (Pa.) High School cross country coach Randy Holtry can't say enough positive things about the new girl on his team.

"She is a wonder child," he said. "She was just born to be a runner."

If that's true, the timing of Neely Spence's birth was impeccable.

"I was born while my dad was running the Boston Marathon - April 16, 1990," she said. "After the race, the reporters were like, 'How's it feel to be a father?'"

Let's just assume Olympian Steve Spence was proud to have passed down some of his world-class running genes.

"Running has always been a part of my life. I've just grown up with that runner lifestyle," said Neely, the oldest of four children, whose mom, Kirsten, also was a standout runner. "I started running and doing small races and fun runs when I was about 8. But I didn't start really training until I was 13."


Now 16, Neely, a home-schooled junior, is competing in her first season as a high school varsity athlete, thanks to a new Pennsylvania law that permits home-schoolers to participate in their school district's extracurricular activities.

She can now prove that she's one of the state's best, if not the best, rather than just daydreaming about the possibilities from the sidelines.

"I'd go to the (high school) races and I'd be like, 'Oh man, I wish I could get into these races and see how I could do and how I could match up,'" she said. "I'd go and cheer, and it was real exciting to watch. But I had moments where I'd like to see what I could have done."

Neely's been nothing short of sensational this fall. In her first high school invitational last weekend, she smashed a field of 320 runners at the Paul Short Run at Lehigh University in a blistering 17:47 on the 3.1-mile course. Easton's Chanelle Price - last spring's 800-meter champion at Nike Outdoor Nationals - was a distant second in 18:21.

"Let's face it, I don't have any boys better than her," said Holtry, who gladly accepts the coaching advice he receives from Neely's father.

"He lets me know what she should be doing every day, and I try to follow that. I rely on him a tremendous amount," Holtry said. "Let's face it, here's me and there's him. Who do you think would know more?"

His Olympic days behind him, Steve coaches the men's and women's cross country and track teams at Shippensburg University, his alma mater. Without a high school team, Neely used to just tag along with her dad and compete unattached in collegiate races - usually finishing near the top.

"She had some unique opportunities that other runners didn't have," Steve said. "But she wanted to run high school races."

Neely trains with the Shippensburg High girls on her easy days - for as long as they can keep up - and the boys on her hard days.

Fitting in hasn't been a problem for her.

"I was really nervous the first day. ... I felt like the home-school nerd," Neely said. "But the team really accepted me, and they're really excited about my success."

Holtry said the success hasn't gone to her head.

"Everyone knows she's one of the top girls in the state, but she has absolutely no ego," he said. "If you didn't know her, you wouldn't be able to pick her out - until they started running."

Andy Mason is assistant sports editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2334, or by e-mail at

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