Minutes after Central Cambria's (Ebensburg, Pa.) Carly Seymour crossed the finish line in ninth place at the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships in San Diego last year, she approached her coach with a wide smile and had one thing to say to him.
"Let's go do it again."
So ended Seymour's junior cross country season. And so began the quest for glory in her senior season. For Seymour, there was hardly any time for introspection. Instead, she took a smile -- and just a bit of confidence -- into her quest to become even better.
For years, this is what the senior has been all about. Even since she started running at a young age, Seymour has made it her mission to become better. And that's exactly what she's done.
"I love running," says Seymour, who first met Central Cambria coach Randy Wilson after winning a local 5K when she was 11. "I think it's self-motivating. It's a team thing, but you get a sense of accomplishment from helping your team out. I guess I'm competitive. I have to do the best."
When Seymour placed 58th at the Class AA state meet as a freshman with a modest time of 20:43, few people paid attention as 13 runners from the Class of 2008 beat her. And when the nation's top runners congregated at Balboa Park in San Diego for the National Championships that year, Seymour stayed at home, reading the athletes' bios and admiring their photos on the Foot Locker Web site. The race seemed like a world away from Ebensburg.
"I've read all the bios of those athletes," she says. "I've wanted to be one of those bios, but I never really expected to be one of them. I dreamed that if I could get that far, it would be amazing -- to actually be there and get my picture taken, knowing that other girls would be reading about me."
So Seymour trained. She put in long, grueling weeks. She ran hill repeats and tougher intervals than even before. She trained until she couldn't train anymore. "After I was 58th, I was so upset the next summer I just trained," she says. "I didn't have any social life whatsoever. I completely put all of my time into training."
And it worked. Seymour won the state championship as a sophomore with a blistering time of 18:56. Then during her junior year, Seymour set out for back-to-back titles but finished second to Neshannock junior Kacey Gibson.
Coach Wilson says the runner-up finish was actually a blessing in disguise. "I think she really learned a lot from that race," he says. "When she went into Foot Locker regionals, she kind of realized she was in there with the big guns and she relaxed."
"When I got to the regional meet, I heard all of these names being called like (national-caliber cross country runners) Neely Spence and Hannah Davidson, and I thought, 'Wow, this is big time now,'" Seymour adds. "I didn't think I was good enough. It wasn't a goal to do anything great. The last mile, I just remember things running through my head like, 'I'm with Neely Spence? Oh my gosh.'"
Seymour shocked herself -- and her coach -- by finishing third behind Spence and Davidson at last year's Northeast Regional. She was even more nervous by the time the National Championships rolled around, but she downplayed her expectations.
"There's all these high-caliber athletes around me," she says. "I kept thinking, 'Did I make it here because of one good day?' But once I finished, I realized this is where my level is at."
For Wilson, the season couldn't have been scripted any better. "I can't even put it into words," he says. "When you go to nationals, you just want to run well. To come in ninth, she was super excited. We all were. Friends, family, the community, the school. It was, well, I don't want to say once in a lifetime because I hope she does it again."
Both Seymour and Wilson came into this season with aspirations of a repeat performance -- if not better. The summer training was as grueling as ever but with less of an emphasis on speed. The state title isn't the goal anymore -- the national title is. While some athletes might downplay their expectations, Seymour is fully aware of what's at stake.
"I probably think about [a national title] on a daily basis," she says. "Once I hit ninth in the nation, you can only get so close to being first. Yeah, it's always there in the back of my mind."
So, too, are the colleges. As of press time, Seymour had narrowed her choices to three -- Penn State, Michigan and Virginia -- based almost entirely on the combination of a good running program and her anticipated major of dietetics and exercise science. In the meantime, she's enjoying being with her Central Cambria teammates, including three freshmen and two of her younger sisters. Coach Wilson says the young runners all relish the opportunity to be on the same team as Seymour.
"She leads by example and they love her," he says. "They're proud of her and they love being on her team. When you're a freshman and you run on the same team as Carly Seymour, she gives that confidence to everyone on the team."
The season has nearly wound down, and Seymour is inching closer to her final goal. At the local level, there isn't much more to prove. "She's by far the greatest athlete our school's ever had," says Wilson.
Seymour won't sneak up on anyone on the national level this time around. She's routinely listed in the same breath as runners like Spence, the 2006 Northeast Regional champion from Shippensburg. Seymour will also likely go toe to toe with Kathy Kroeger, the defending national champ out of Tennessee.
Wilson, for one, thinks Seymour will have even more national success this time around. "I think she's a stronger runner," he says. "She's done more core training and more strength training. She's stronger mentally."
Which can only mean one thing. It's time to go do it again.