BROOKLYN — Abby VanderKooi made it look easy for three years, dominating the small-school divisions at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Cross Country Finals as one of the top runners in the nation.
But the 2021 season has been anything but easy for VanderKooi, and neither was the race in which the Muskegon Western Michigan Christian senior won her fourth MHSAA championship.
VanderKooi joined a select group of four-time champions by running a time of 18:06.58 Saturday at the Division 4 race at Michigan International Speedway.
As she crossed the finish line, completing her four-year mission, VanderKooi staggered a bit before gathering herself, even though the time wasn’t anywhere near her fastest.
“That hurt,” she said. “I was happy to be done. I saw the flag and I was like, ‘Oh, the gates of heaven!’”
VanderKooi finished third in the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships as a freshman and sophomore before the 2020 race was canceled because of COVID. Along the way, she won the MHSAA LP Division 4 title in 2018 and 2019 and the Division 3 crown when her school moved up a division for one year in 2020.
VanderKooi became only the fourth girl to win four outright MHSAA Lower Peninsula individual championships.
The others are Carrie Gould of Burton Bendle and Flint Powers Catholic (1992-95), Katie Boyles of Rochester Adams (1997-2000) and Kirsten Olling of Breckenridge (2010-13). Amber Smith of Ishpeming Westwood (2000-03) and Tara Kiilunen of Calumet won four MHSAA Upper Peninsula titles.
Valari Ambrose of Riverview Gabriel Richard (1981-84) won the individual race four times, but only twice had the fastest time in Class C back when there were two races at the MHSAA Finals. Theresa Padilla of Camden-Frontier won four individual races from 1984-87, but had the fastest time in Class D only once.
“It’s really special,” VanderKooi said. “Not many people get to do that. I’m so thankful I have the ability to do that.”
VanderKooi said she had trouble breathing in the cold air in the first race of the day at MIS. It was just one of several challenges she’s faced this year.
“I wonder if I have cold-induced asthma,” she said. “My sister does. I don’t have it as bad as her. I haven’t been having a good season; I don’t know why. I haven’t been able to click into it. Ever since I broke my toe in track season, I haven’t been able to get back into running fast times, so that’s been really frustrating.”
Unlike her past three MHSAA Finals, VanderKooi had company after the initial burst from the start line.
VanderKooi reached the mile mark in 5:47.9, with Buckley sophomore Aiden Harrand close behind at 5:49.5. The gap increased to nine seconds at the two-mile mark.
“I could hear her the whole time,” VanderKooi said. “When you hear people cheering for other people behind you, it’s kind of scary.”
With VanderKooi graduating, Harrand could be the heir apparent to the Division 4 throne. Harrand was fifth as a freshman.
Harrand’s plan Saturday was “just pretty much stay as close as I can and try to gap the move, move when she does and try my best. About the mile-and-a-half marker, she just had more in the tank than I did.”
For VanderKooi, her performance wasn’t all about individual glory. Her first-place stick helped Western Michigan Christian win its first MHSAA team championship by an 81-108 margin over Kalamazoo Christian.
Her freshman sister, Grace, took eighth in 19:28.28. Completing the team score were Ava Rotman (33rd, 20:41.09), Brianna Zuidema (36th, 20:43.09) and Eleanor Kingshott (59th, 21:12.33).
“Having my team along, especially my sister, it means the world to me,” Abby VanderKooi said. “I’ve never had so much fun with such a wonderful team.”
PHOTOS Muskegon Western Michigan Christian’s Abby VanderKooi travels the final stretch on the way to clinching her fourth MHSAA Finals individual title Friday. (Middle) The WMC runners prepare to begin Saturday’s Division 4 race; they’d go on to claim their first team title. (Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)