About two weeks before school started this year, Riverside-Brookfield High School girls cross country coach Kristi Sterling received an email from someone she had never heard of.
Mailin Struck, a 16-year-old German girl who was going to be a foreign exchange student in the fall, emailed Sterling saying that she would like to join the cross country team.
“I had no idea what kind of talent she had at all,” Sterling said. “She just said that she had been running in Germany, and she wanted to continue running over here in the United States.”
On the first day of practice when Sterling saw Struck for the first time she began to get an idea of the good fortune that had just landed in her lap.
“When she showed up on the first day, and I saw she’s very tall, skinny, long legs, I figured she was going to be very fast. And when she started running for us I could tell right away that she was very fast,” Sterling said.
Well just two weeks before getting on an airplane to come to RBHS, Struck had surprised herself by finishing second in the 3,000-meter run at the Under 18 German national track and field championships, running a time of 9:41.20 on July 26.
“That was like the best day of my life,” said Struck who arrived in the United States on Aug. 8
This cross country season Struck has quickly established herself as one of the best high school runners in Illinois and a potential state champion.
Struck has won four of her five races so far this season. Her closest win was by 44 seconds. But it was the race that she did not win that really showed why she is a favorite to win the Class 2A state championship in November.
On Sept. 14 Struck ran in the First to the Finish Invitational on the state meet course at Peoria’s Detweiller Park. Also in the meet was Woodstock senior Maura Beattie, the defending Class 2A state champion in the 3,200 meters, and Yorkville sophomore Skyler Bollinger, who finished fifth in the Class 2A state cross country meet as a freshman last year.
The three separated themselves from the field. Struck, who had no idea who her opponents were or what they had accomplished, trailed Beattie almost the entire race but made a move and passed her with about 500 yards to go.
But coming to the finish Struck, who was already passing runners who had one more loop of the course to go, got confused when an official appeared to be waving her to go the right for one more loop. She followed the direction instead of veering left to go to the finish chute.
She kept on going on the main part of the course as if for another loop with the slower runners until another official realized the mistake and directed her to double back towards the finish. The mistake cost her almost a minute and the race. She finished third 45 seconds behind Beattie.
“I was so angry,” Struck said. “I just asked, ‘Where do I have to go?’ Struck said. “I was a bit angry, because I really didn’t know what happened.”
But she would have beaten Beattie if not for her mistake. She won’t make the same mistake at the state meet on Nov. 9.
If Struck wins at the state meet she will be the second RBHS runner to win state. Jim Press won the boys championship in 1966. Katrina Price finished second in both 1986 and 1987.
Struck is from Pinneberg, Germany, a small city of about 40,000 people located about 12 miles northwest of Hamburg. She began running three or four years ago after playing field hockey.
She decided to become a foreign exchange student because she wanted to see the United States and improve her English. She just happened to be assigned to RBHS. She lives with her host mom, Debbie Ward, in North Riverside where she shares a bedroom with Wendy Zhou, an exchange student from China.
In Germany schools typically don’t have athletic teams. Struck trained at a club in Germany and has had the same coach since she began running. But she enjoys the team aspect of American high school cross country.
“I love the team spirit and the girls are so nice,” Struck said. “It’s so cool when there are other people and they cheer for you, cheer for the school. In Germany you’re not feeling like you’re running for the club, you run for your own glory. Here I think I’m running for my school, I’m running for my team. That’s a big difference.”
But that also brings pressure, particularly as word of her talent spread quickly at the school and talk turned to the possibility of a state championship.
“I feel like I always have to make the school proud,” Struck said. “I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on me because the school is so proud. … It sounds strange to say everyone talks about me. I think they don’t know who I am, but they know there’s this exchange student and she’s so fast.”
Having a runner as talented as Struck has posed a challenge to Sterling. Struck is more than two minutes faster than the next best runner on the team, so formulating workouts for the team and challenging Struck is not easy.
“We’ve been getting very creative,” Sterling said. “We find ways to challenge her in practice without alienating her from the rest of the team, so we do things like we have her chase down the other girls who get a substantial head start.”
They call these workouts search and destroy.
“It’s really hard,” Struck said. “I think it’s good for me, but actually I hate it when I have to do it, but I think it’s a good way of training.”
Right now Struck is planning to stay at RBHS for only one semester, because she is anxious to get back to Germany and her coach to prepare for the track season, but she could change her mind and stay the whole year at RB.
“I’ve thought about staying longer,” Struck said. “I don’t know. It’s a really difficult decision.”
On Saturday at the Oak Park’s Roy Gummerson Invitational Struck should get a challenge from Fenwick junior Olivia Ryan, who finished fifth in the Class 3A state meet last fall.