By Andrew Johnson
MUSKEGON – While she may only be a freshman, the story of Abby VanderKooi has been well covered since she stunned a lot of people by winning an individual state championship during the 2018 fall cross country season.
What most people don’t know is that VanderKooi, who has already gained national acclaim for her distance running abilities, has been guided along through her first year of varsity sports by her older sister, senior Sarah VanderKooi, who is a pretty talented runner in her own right.
All season long it’s been the two of them, making the daily drive from Fremont to Norton Shores for school, practice and meets. And while Abby has been grabbing the spotlight with her amazing ability, Sarah helped give her the confidence to establish her dominance in cross country and track.
“It’s been really comforting,” said Abby about having Sarah around as she adjusted to high school. “Sometimes when she wasn’t there for practice, it was kind of weird. I talked to her during practice, and it’s just nice to have a sibling and someone who’s with me.”
But starting this weekend at the Division 3 state track and field state finals, Abby will be without her sister. That’s because Abby qualified for state in the 3,200-meter run at regionals two weekends ago, easily winning the event, but Sarah did not make the cut.
“It would have been fun,” said Abby, when asked about missing the chance to compete one more time with her big sister. “But Sarah was actually not feeling good at regionals. She was throwing up, but she competed anyway. That just shows how tough she is.”
It was a disappointing way to end the sisters’ one season of competing together at the varsity level, and it has been quite a season.
In the fall they were on the WMC girls cross country team that placed third in the state in Division 4. Abby won the individual state championship while Sarah finished 32nd overall.
This spring they competed together on WMC’s 4×800 meter relay team, which finished second in the Lakes 8 Conference, and both had their share of individual success.
Abby has won every 3,200-meter race she’s competed in this season. That included the Greater Muskegon Athletic Association City Track Meet, where she literally lapped every single one of her opponents in the finals and set a new city meet record time of 10:46.27.
The hope was that both sisters would qualify for the state finals, since Sarah has been there twice before. Last year she finished 11th in the state in 800-meter run in Division 4, and as a sophomore she earned All-State honors as a member of two relay teams.
Abby easily qualified easily for state this year, winning the regional title in the 3,200-meter run. But Sarah came up short, finishing seventh in the 800-meter run. Only the top two in each event qualify for state, as well as any others who meet the qualifying time.
Part of the problem was that Sarah was competing against tougher Division 3 runners, after competing in Division 4 last year. She was also very ill at regionals.
Despite all that, the sisters came very close to qualifying for state together in the 4X800 meter relay. Their WMC team finished third at regionals, and only missed the qualifying time by just over two seconds.
But that was enough to keep the relay squad out, and now Abby is the only member of the WMC girls track team who will be competing in the state finals at Jenison High School.
Sarah said she’s not too disappointed, since she’s already had her share of success at the high school level. She plans to be at the state meet cheering loudly for her sister.
“I know my talents will never be her talents,” said Sarah, who will attend Albion College in the fall. “We are different people. It would have been fun, but I prefer not to feel bad for myself, and instead build her up.”
There is no doubt that Abby will do just fine on her own, based on some of the amazing results she has already turned in.
In December she placed third in the Foot Locker Cross Country National Finals. In February she finished third in the Gazelle Sports Elite Series 3200-meter race. Those were both national races, against elite competition in her age group.
Now Abby is headed to the Michigan High School Athletic Association state finals, where she will be among the favorites to win the 3,200 meter title, but will face some stiff competition, including defending state champion Adelyn Ackley of Hart.
“I’m really, really nervous,” Abby said. “School is almost done, but I can’t get excited about that because I’m so nervous about this race. I know it’s going to be really tough. I would love to win it, but I know there are no guarantees. I’m always worried I won’t feel good and not run fast enough. It’s Just scary to me.”
“I would love to win it all four years, but to do that you have to win it as a freshman.”
One unique characteristic about Abby is that she seems very humble and dissatisfied with her performance, despite becoming an elite distance runner at a very young age.
“I did an indoor two mile and I was hoping to be faster,” she said, when recently asked to sum her track season. “I wouldn’t have minded being faster and I’ve been doing better lately.
“I lost a little weight without trying to and got a little slower. I’m trying to get stronger and build back up again.”
WMC track coach Greg Gould has been impressed with the way Abby has handled the early success.
“I think it’s pretty extraordinary,” he said. “I’ve always felt like she was good at putting that part of it in a box and not worrying about it. She’s certainly way more concerned about her own expectations for herself.”
Whatever happens in the state finals on Saturday, Abby will have lots of fans there, watching and cheering, including her parents, Sarah and several other siblings.
“I think if she wants it, if she tries her hardest, she has a good chance,” Sarah said.