Success in cross country has more than its share of obstacles

Grace Vanderkooi separating herself from the pack in the 2023 cross country state finals.
(Photo by Mary Wilson)

By Ron Rop

Grace Vanderkooi has been around the Western Michigan Christian girls cross country team for longer than the three years she’s been on the team.

When you’re the youngest of six siblings and they are all athletic, you get dragged to soccer games, track meets and cross country meets.

“She’s probably been coming to meets since she was able to walk,” Warrior coach Greg Gould said, laughingly.

Fast forward to 2023 and now it’s the youngest to get her turn in the spotlight. Vanderkooi, one of the state’s top runners in Division 4, recently led the Warriors to their first-ever Greater Muskegon Athletic Association championship in October. She also paced WMC to a third-place finish in the state finals with a third-place overall finish individually.

Two years ago, when her older sister Abby was a senior and Grace was a freshman, the Warriors won the Division 4 state title in cross country. Grace sat out the GMAA that year due to a stress fracture in her femur. But she returned and was instrumental in the 2021 state title run with a fifth-place finish.

In last year’s state finals race, WMC finished 14th after jumping up to Division 3. Grace finished 13th in that race. She also had a successful track season last spring.

But, now Abby is a sophomore runner at Grand Valley State University and Grace, a junior. But, none of this success could have been predicted just five years ago.

“I hated running and I made a vow that I would never do cross country,” Vanderkooi said. “We were watching people run all the time and I’m like, ‘I’m never doing cross country.’” I’ll do volleyball. I’ll do basketball. I’ll do the soccer thing, maybe the tennis thing. But as it got closer I kind of figured out I could be pretty good and you start doing it and you can’t stop doing it because it’s fun and you actually like it.”

Coach Gould is glad that decision was made years ago that put another strong runner into a Warrior program.

Besides Vanderkooi, the Warriors’ fortunes also rest on the shoulders of their other top runners - seniors Grace Folkema and Eleanor Kingshott and two promising freshmen in Leah Sneller and Kaylie Riksen.

“In the girls’ Division 4, the top is very deep,” said Gould, referencing Whitmore Lake and Johannesburg Lewiston, two teams ranked in the Top 3 in the coaches’ poll. “All three teams are very good, but at a raw-speed standpoint, we’re not as fast as we were when we won. But these girls are the second fastest team I’ve ever coached here.”

WMC faced both teams in the Portage Invitational in what Gould calls the start of the “Championship Season” for cross country. The Warriors topped Whitmore Lake, but fell 11 points short against Johannesburg Lewiston.

Then along came the GMAA, a meet that many area coaches hold in high regard.

“It’s that whole one-year bragging rights,” said Gould, who can now cross “GMAA title” off his bucket list as a cross country coach. “It’s part of why I hold it in high regard. It’s everybody.

“I do know teams that will come alive and try to pull something extraordinary,” said Gould. “They’ll do what they normally don’t do to upset the apple cart.”

Vanderkooi has won two GMAA titles with sights on much more.

With all that success, don’t think for a moment that Vanderkooi just runs and runs and runs and when race day comes, she runs some more. Instead, there is careful consideration made to keep her injury free. She readily admits she is injury prone.

So she isn’t running 35-40 miles per week, She runs about half that then trains in the swimming pool and on the elliptical machine.

“I spend a lot of my time in the pool,” Vanderkooi said. “And the elliptical. I do run 15-25 miles a week and cross train about twice a week. I have different pool workouts because I was on the swim team last year and so I learned some things from that. I do some aqua jogging and I do some swimming.”

That’s all part of the program to keep her running at the top of the class as well as stay healthy.

“What we need to do is to manage some of her injury issues, she’s not an everyday constant, but when she’s here, we never miss a beat,” said Gould, the Warriors’ eighth-year coach.

“We just have to be really cognizant of the volume of dry-land running, which we learned the hard way in her freshman year when she got hurt. I take some of the blame for that, for certain. We weren’t careful enough.

“It became obvious we were going to have some issues with the weight-bearing pounding,” Gould said. “Every year it gets a little bit better and we can do a little bit more. When she gets older and stronger, she will be able to handle more.”

“Getting the proper strength training and fueling has definitely helped,” she said.

A year ago, the goal was to have Grace with the team two days a week whether it be practice or a meet. This season, it was three days a week.

“She can mimic some of the hard stuff in the pool and spring back a lot quicker so she is probably getting a little more quality this way than maybe if we were trying to manage it all in the running aspect.”

Between Vanderkooi and Gould, they have built a level of trust and cooperation to make sure she remains healthy. And her father, Ted, is a doctor, who typically meets her at the finish line to attend to any issues she may have after a grueling race.

Vanderkooi has a couple other goals she would like to accomplish. She’d like to change a couple of the WMC girls running records from “Abby Vanderkooi” to “Grace Vanderkooi.”

“She is definitely faster than I am,” Grace said. “In the 800, I am going to get her record this year. I am like a second off and I really want to get that one. Her mile .. I think I need to cut off like 12 seconds and her 5K is like 16:48.” Grace’s best 5K is still above 18:00.

Abby’s name is on the board for the 800, the 1-mile, the 2-mile and the 5K.

“I, for sure, want to knock off the 800 and maybe someday the mile,” Grace said.

“The 5K might be a little bit more tricky.”


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