Riverside’s Juliana Gamboa (above) heads toward the finish line during the Detweiller at Dark race for middle school and high school cross country runners on July 29 in Peoria. Gamboa was in third place when she made her push to catch the leader, Brea Counihan of New Lenox. Gamboa ended up with the gold, beating Counihan by almost 10 seconds. (Provided)
Juliana Gamboa

Juliana Gamboa of Riverside could soon have many memorable cross-country races at Peoria’s Detweiller Park.

The Hauser Junior High School rising eighth-grader enjoyed an impressive debut on the course July 29. 

Gamboa won the junior high girls 2.1-mile race out of 128 competitors during Detweiller at Dark, the annual summer event on the annual site of the IHSA cross country state meets every November. 

Gamboa’s personal-best 12 minutes, 37.2 seconds won by 9.7 seconds over rising eighth-grader Brea Counihan from New Lenox.

“I didn’t think I was going to finish first. I thought maybe I’d finish third or second. I was really surprised,” Gamboa said. “[Riverside-Brookfield High School girls cross country coach Blair Jensen] told us it was more of a fun run, but I decided it would be a nice meet to try my best but also to have a good time doing it.”

Gamboa entered after participating in the RBHS girls cross country summer running camp. Current Bulldogs were among those in the high school girls and boys races in the 9 p.m. hour along a lighted 3-mile course.   

The junior high girls race started at 8 p.m. After one mile, Counihan led in 5:44, 10 seconds ahead of the third-place Gamboa. 

After another quarter of a mile, Gamboa moved into second. She gained the lead with about half a mile left.

“I usually finish pretty strong, but I was definitely pushing myself harder because [Counihan] was really fast and I wanted to catch up to her,” Gamboa said. “I honestly couldn’t believe I won because there’s a lot of fast people down there. I was in second place for a lot of the run.” 

Gamboa’s love for running began with her father, Paul, and participating in road races such as the Pilgrim Pie Run in LaGrange and the American Brain Tumor Association 5K in honor of Paul’s mother. 

As they began also running around town, Gamboa’s passion grew.  

“I really love just kind of the feel of your feet on the ground as you’re pushing yourself to run faster,” Gamboa said. “I really like also that it’s a mental sport. You have to be mentally strong, and it shows that you’re stronger than you really think you are, and you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it.”

Hauser Junior High does not compete in the Illinois Elementary School Association postseason, but Gamboa beat her previous best (13:00 for 2.0 miles) from winning a meet this spring as part of RBHS’ Meet the Runners event. At the 2021 Class 3A IESA state meet in Normal last October, Counihan was sixth (12:22.4 for 2.0 miles) as the highest finishing seventh-grader.

Gamboa also trains with the Chicago Flyers Track Club. Last November, she finished 19th (11:59.66 for 3,000 meters/1.86 miles) in the Girls 11-12 race at the Cross Country Coaches National Youth Championships in Paris, Kentucky.    

In the high school girls race at Detweiller at Dark, RBHS rising senior and two-time IHSA state cross country competitor Bryce Pacourek was 23rd (19:05.2).

“They’re all really fast and supportive. I really enjoyed running with [RBHS this summer],” Gamboa said. “I had a really great coach, team. I couldn’t do it without them. The people and coaches from other sports, other teams also helped me win the race.”