Cornwall Central (New Windsor, N.Y.)
superstar Aisling Cuffe has conquered the United States with an unblemished cross country record and now she's ready to tackle her final challenge – the world.
By virtue of her huge 26-second victory during last week's USATF Junior Cross Country Championships in San Diego, Calif., the 5-foot-4 senior will lead the American contingent on March 20 when they compete in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbria, Spain.
"It's going to be really cool, because I've heard all about the Kenyans and Ethiopians," the 2010 Gatorade National Cross Country Runner of the Year told MaxPreps. "I've got to go there with a realistic goal. Right now it's the top 25, but that's subject to change.
"I don't feel pressure from past victories that are under my belt. If there is any target on my back, I like to have it there. I know what it's like to be the kid who wasn't picked (to win) in previews."
Marc Bloom, the nation's leading authority on cross country, has great respect for Cuffe.
He told MaxPreps, "Aisling is certainly one of the best young female distance runners of recent years. She not only wins national events, but by big margins. She's already medaled in international competition. It would be great if she could make the top 15 or 20 at worlds against all the magnificent African runners.
"On a personal level, she's the sweetest, most natural, self-effacing athlete you'll ever meet. She just loves to run, train hard, compete. I think she's only been scratching the surface of her potential and in college, at Stanford, I expect her to have an impact on the national scene. I wouldn't be surprised if eventually she became a top pro like a Shalane Flanagan or Kara Goucher."Humble beginnings
Over the past two years, Cuffe has won numerous big races and set many course records, but the early stages of
her career produced few signs of stardom.
In fact, she never even started running until she was a 13-year-old middle school student. Her first sport was ballet at age five, but that lasted just one year. She then took up soccer, which lasted through her freshman year.
Cuffe began running as a seventh grader because her best friend, Mikayla Bittner, was a runner. They did a lot of racing in gym class and the competition is really what drew her to the sport.
Interestingly, she tried out for distance running as a seventh grader, but with just two days of practice she was quite sore and decided to be a sprinter (they were those who couldn't run distance), along with competing in the triple and long jump. She finally eased into distance running as an eighth grader.
Cornwall Central coach Dave Feuer didn't expect much from Cuffe as a freshman.
"She hadn't done anything of note at the junior high level and was not on our radar," he said. "She started as a race walker. She took it seriously. We could see she was dedicated in whatever she did. She started asking a lot of questions and really wanted to know how to get better. Most freshmen are just happy to be on the team. She was like a junior or senior.
"By that spring she was just doing running and made the state meet in Buffalo. I was a little surprised how good she got in a short period of time. She pretty much took over the top spot on a good team and led practice as a freshman."
Her first-ever victory came during the winter of her freshman year when she won the fourth heat (by 200 meters) during a 1600-meter race.
"That was a confidence boost," Cuffe said. "I ran 5 minutes, 54 seconds in the 1600 for a huge PR (personal record). My best had been 5 minutes, 59 seconds in the 1500."
Prior to the state meet, Cuffe came to Feuer and asked if she could be late to a practice. It was common during the period of final exams.
"Oh, I've really got to get my (math) grade up," she explained.
He asked what her grade was. When she said it was 99 (out of 100), he understood how important academics were to her.
Though she didn't place in the 3000-meter race, just being the only qualifier from her team at the Class A state meet was a huge stepping stone. Getting noticed
As a sophomore, she got her first taste of cross country, which was 5000 meters. She never previously had run more than 3000 meters.
"It was over hills and in woods. It was a little intimidating," she said of her new sport.
Feuer's eyes quickly were opened when Cuffe blew away an outstanding runner, Lillian Griebesland of Warwick Valley (Warwick, N.Y.), during a dual meet. Then she set a course record in Carlisle, Pa.
"That's when the media started getting involved," Feuer recalled.
Her early goal was to make the top five at her county meet. She surprised even herself when she won it by more than 40 seconds. She later placed a close second in the New York State Class A, then the Federation finals. She also qualified for the prestigious Foot Locker Nationals in San Diego where she finished 12th as a sophomore.
Her track season did not produce any big victories, but she set two major goals for the future: (1) win the Foot Locker Nationals and (2) beat arch rival Emily Lipari of Roslyn (Roslyn Heights, N.Y.)
, who was a year older. She noted that the talented Lipari was an "up and down" performer and she wanted only to beat her when she was on her "A game."
That summer she began to make a national name for herself by first winning the USATF Juniors 5000-meter run in a personal-record 16:43 at the University of Oregon.
"That was really exciting, just knowing that I was at Hayward Field," she said. "That was the best win of my career (at that point)."
She qualified for the Pan American Junior Games in Trinidad where she placed second in the 5000 at 16:48.
"I had thought that my sophomore year was my breakout year, but my junior year I was undefeated heading into the Foot Locker and had PR'd on every course," the rising superstar said proudly.
That year the Foot Locker produced one of its most sensational finishes and Cuffe finished fourth in 17:21. Still, it was her PR by 42 seconds on the Balboa Park course in San Diego.
During the indoor track season, she finished second in the Melrose Mile, just three seconds out of the title with a clocking of 4:55.
She later placed third in the two-mile during the Nike Indoor Nationals in Boston, Mass., going 10:11, which was a national junior class and New York state record. That race produced the No. 6, 7, 9 and 10 all-time two-mile records.
"I would loved to have won," she admitted, "but my time made me so happy that I didn't care."Death kick
During the outdoor season, Cuffe lost the 3000 by two seconds to arch rival Lipari at the Penn Relays. Two weeks later, however, she beat Lipari by 16 seconds in the 3200 during the Loucks Games in White Plains (N.Y.).
Cuffe utilized a "death kick" in her biggest win over Lipari as a junior at the Class A state meet 3000.
"That was the first time I beat her on her ‘A' game," Cuffe noted. "I pushed the pace in the middle of the race. At one point I had a five-second lead. I beat her by two seconds (in 9:27)."
That summer she lost the two-mile to Foot Locker champion Megan Goethals by 1.49 seconds during the New Balance Outdoor Nationals in Greensboro, N.C. Goethals ran 10:01.00, which was just one-tenth of a second off the national record. Cuffe's time of 10:02.49 was a junior class national record.
During the USA Juniors meet at Drake University, Cuffe placed third in the 3000 with a New York state record time of 9:20.00. It was seven seconds faster than her career-best time.
She also ran the 5000 in 96-degree weather at Drake and won by a huge margin. But she also failed to gain a qualifying mark, got sick and couldn't keep food down.
She still calls it the worst day of her young career. Picking up speed
Cuffe's senior year of cross country was a story of total domination.
Big wins and course records were produced during the Great American Invitational in Cary, N.C. (16:40 PR) and the New York Federation meet (17:17).
What she said about the Foot Locker Northeast Regional spoke volumes of her dominant running.
"It was good to sit in the pack for the first half to get a feel of racing with people around me and then kick over the last half," she said.
Her strategy at the Foot Locker finals in San Diego was "to try to break the field and pull away. I felt tired at the end, but ran a very evenly-paced race. My biggest feeling was relief, because I knew I would be really disappointed if I'd lost."
Cuffe's winning time of 16:53 was the sixth-fastest in the 32-year history of the Foot Locker and her margin of 34 seconds over runner-up Rachel Johnson (Nike Cross Nationals champion) was the third-largest in the 32-year history of Foot Locker.
She again proved she was the premier female distance runner in the high school ranks by winning the USATF Junior Cross Country Championship in San Diego in 21:13 – a wide 26 seconds faster than the runner-up. This race included ages 14-19.
Cuffe also is a superstar academically, ranking No. 2 in her class with a 100.8 GPA (A-plus) with many college-level courses. She is a member of the Math Team, Key Club and National Honor Society.
If she has a hobby, it would be computers. No, not computer games. She spends countless hours checking on track athletes and their times. She is a true track "junkie."
She loves to follow distance star Molly Huddle, a New Yorker who holds the American record for 5000 meters.
"I've met her a few times and really love to talk to her," Cuffe noted.
The personable teenager also enjoys her annual family summer trips to Ireland where she visits with 13 cousins, 14 aunts and uncles and one set of grandparents.
After her outdoor track season, Cuffe will attend Stanford University to study either math or science. She also considered Duke and Villanova.
"I'd love to be able to run professionally some day and, hopefully, represent the United States in the Olympics," she projected. "But I'm just taking everything one season at a time."
Feuer says, "I've tried to train her to stay healthy and hungry. In a matter of less than three years she has been unbelievable. She refuses to settle on her past achievements. She is just really a student of the sport. She knows what everybody is doing in her events, so she knows what she has to do to stay ahead.
"She can go as far as she wants. She wants to be one of the elite runners collegiately and post-collegiately. The bigger the stage, the more is going to come out."