Mailin Struck has only been in the United States for three months, but in that short time she has burst onto the local sports scene like a meteorite blazing through the sky.
Struck, a foreign exchange student from Germany, will disappear just as quickly but what she has accomplished will never be forgotten at Riverside-Brookfield High School.
Struck won the Class 2A cross-country championship in dominating fashion Saturday at Detweiller Park in Peoria to become the first female state champion in any sport at RBHS. Her time of 16:35 was 29 seconds better than runner-up Maryjeanne Gilbert of Peoria Notre Dame and the eighth-fastest in Illinois history.
“It was very exciting,” RBHS coach Kristi Sterling said. “We anticipated that she was going to go out and be very competitive but she blew away all of our expectations and shifted into another gear that we hadn’t known she had. It was very cool to see her win.”
Sterling had no idea her program would produce a state champion before Struck arrived in town on Aug. 8. Struck, who will turn 17 on Nov. 21, is one of the top young runners in Germany. She finished second in the 3,000-meter run at the Under-18 German national championships in July, but Sterling didn’t know that.
“Mailin just got randomly placed here,”Sterling said. “She could have gone anywhere.”
Instead, she came to RBHS and went places no Bulldog has gone before. Struck will return in January to Germany, where she has two more years of high school left, but her visage will remain permanently at RBHS, which was her main motivation Saturday.
“The week before I told my coach the only reason I wanted to win this is to have my picture on the wall,” Struck said. “She was like, ‘What, that’s the only reason?’ It was pretty funny.”
Struck has enjoyed her time in America but she feels pressure just like any serious athlete. Those pressures were eased by the camaraderie she established with her fellow runners
“I really love my team and I couldn’t have made it on my own,” Struck said. “It is tough to train on my own. Maybe some people can accomplish stuff like that, but I can’t.
“I’m so glad I have teammates because before the race I’m really anxious and I’m in a bad mood, but they’re supporting me. It’s nice to know they are behind me and the coaches worked hard to get me ready. They did a fantastic job.”
Struck was aware of the buzz her performances have generated at school but didn’t realize she had become a trailblazer until after her victory.
“The week before all the teachers were talking about it in class, telling everyone I had a chance to win,” Struck said. “I am hearing this all the time, [that] some people expect me to win and it was kind of a goal for me. There was the possibility that I can win so it was kind of stuck in my head. It worked out pretty well.”
With Struck in the lineup, the Bulldogs advanced to the state meet for the third time since 2008. Most German schools do not offer interscholastic sports, so this season was a new experience for Struck, who has trained with a club coach for the past four years,
“They don’t really have school sports inGermany, so to run with other people and teammates is kind of a rarity for her,”Sterling said. “This was kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her.”
It was also a unique opportunity for RBHS, which has produced just eight previous state champions, all boys, in over a century of competition. Only one of those was a cross-country runner: Jim Press, who won the 1966 title. The school had only one previous state medalist, four-time medalist Katrina Price, who was second in 1986 and 1987.
Struck’s championship helped the Bulldogs finish 19th in the 25-team field with 391 points. Senior Sarah Melone finished 40th in 18:36, while senior Clare Bollnow (106th, 19:34), junior Meaghan Dorsey (163rd, 20:30) and junior Deanna Keen (190th, 21:15) were the other scorers. Senior Amy Wagner (192nd, 21:31) and sophomore April Flores (210th, 23:06) also competed.
Of that group, only Bollnow, a three-time state qualifier, had previous state finals experience. They all have Struck to thank for the opportunity.
“Having her around has really boosted everything in relation to my team,”Sterling said. “Just seeing an athlete of that caliber, seeing what she eats, how she takes care of her body and seeing her work ethic, is new to the girls.”
“She’s all-around just a great person. She’s been nothing but wonderful for our team.” Struck already has been invited to join the German national track team and could represent Germany at the 2014 Under-20 World Championships next summer in Eugene, Oregon. She laughs when her fellow students talk about one day watching her compete in the Olympics, but said she will always remember her state title.
“I’m really proud,” Struck said. “I think the school is proud of me even though I’m still new. I feel like a real student.”