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High school cross country

Running bond: O'Brien sisters make individual, family memories — together

Rose, a senior, and Zoe, a sophomore, key members of talented Windjammer distance group
By Ken Waltz | Feb 17, 2021
Courtesy of: Nicole Maynard Sisters Rose, left, and Zoe O'Brien of the Camden Hills cross-country team.

Rockport — At a young age, sisters Rose and Zoe O'Brien began a life on the run. Not to run away from anything, specifically, but to run from point A to point B. And for much of the journey, over hill and dale, through the woods and on the track, the siblings have made significant strides and development as distant athletes and young people — mostly together.

That running began as youngsters at Lincolnville Central School and continued at Camden Hills Regional High School, as the O'Briens proved instrumental in helping the Windjammers stay among the league, regional and state elite.

The trail and course success continued into the weird pandemic-altered 2020 fall campaign, when the sisters helped anchor another standout group of Windjammer runners, who finished the regular season 6-0 and were fourth among 10 full teams at the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A championships.

The other postseason races, including the state meet, for which Camden Hills qualified, was not held due to COVID-19.

In most recent "normal" years, the Windjammers would challenge for an undefeated regular season, as well as league, regional and state titles, as Camden Hills won the state championship in 2017 and was runner-up the following year.

And the O'Briens have been intergral elements of that strong, consistent course success.

"They’re both such big parts of the team it’s hard to put down in words how they have really transformed themselves, worked together as siblings, and then found their own independent places on the team," said Windjammer coach Helen Bonzi. "They really are a dynamic pair."

Start as Lynx on run

The Lincolnville siblings, Rose, 17, and Zoe, 16, are a senior and sophomore at CHRHS and also compete in track and field. Additionally, Rose is a member of the National Honor Society, secretary of Camden For Community, member of Olympia Snowe Women's Leadership Institute and Member of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

The two also work together in the summer serving ice cream to customers at River Ducks in Camden.

So how did life on the run begin for the O'Briens? The same way it often does for LCS students — encouragement from Paul Russo, the school's principal and cross-country coach.

Russo cultivates runners in an effort to get youngsters moving and into a sport where they can test themselves mentally and physically, as well as to be members of a team where the youngsters can work to reach individual and group goals.

"It was the only sport offered at our school for fourth graders, so me and a couple friends decided to join," Rose said.

Zoe added, "Running was the only available sport open to fourth graders at our elementary school, LCS, so I joined so I could have something to do. My principal played a big part in getting me to join the team as he was the coach. His encouragement and coaching really inspired me to continue running and to actually enjoy it. A big part of it was also following in Rose's footsteps because of how much she seemed to enjoy it."

So the two toed the starting line many times for the Lynx and finished strongly for a school that consistently challenged for Busline League supremacy.

But cross country running is difficult. There is the tough training, the practices and the nerve-wracking races.

So why do they continue to run?

"So many reasons — teammates, exercise, the community, in order to keep myself busy," Rose said. "I run all year long, and whenever I stop I get into a funk."

Zoe added: "One big reason I continue to run is because running makes me feel accomplished and like I can do anything. I also love my teammates and enjoy being on a team and hanging out with them. The energy on the cross-country team keeps me going and encourages me not to give up. Running is also a good way to stay in shape all year long which is a big reason why I do it."

How do the siblings stay engaged and motivated to run? There is no instant feedback, but plenty of sweat and pain.

"My teammates make it fun, and we definitely hold each other accountable to train together," Rose said. "I think that it's important to not take it too seriously, because otherwise I definitely would get jaded. We also use food as a big motivator."

"The best way for me to stay motivated is by running with my sister and with my teammates," Zoe said. "We encourage each other to keep on going even if it gets hard because of how we hold each other accountable. I also picture finishing a run or race and how accomplished I will feel after."

Running goals

Having friends in the same sport is a key component to having fun and staying motivated, but what about the motivation of family rivalry, even a small one?

"Mostly really fun," Rose said of training and competing with her sister. "We have a lot of the same friends and we are very similar people."

Zoe added, "Running on the same team as my sister is actually really fun for me. When I joined the high school team as a freshman I already felt like I knew everyone and was a part of the team because of Rose. She has always been super inclusive of me and I never felt like the annoying little sister. Running on the same team as her can be a little challenging sometimes though because we can sometimes get a little competitive. I have always felt really bad for her when she had a bad race or someone who normally doesn’t beat her beats her and vice-versa, so it is hard sometimes if she has a bad race and I beat her to know that I was part of what contributed to making it bad. But mostly it is super enjoyable and makes it ten times more fun to have my sister on the team."

But what about the sibling rivalry?

"We have always been very competitive in all aspects, so we definitely do push each other," Rose said. "I think it was difficult for me when my sister initially joined the team and began to run faster than I was. It took some time to accept that she will beat me, and that that is alright. However, I am mostly just happy for her to be having the same experience as I have had, because I know running has shaped my high school years."

Zoe added, "There is some family competition, mostly because Rose and I are right next to each other when we race. Sometimes she beats me and other times I beat her, but my goal for a race is never to beat her or do better than her. I do feel like I am the more competitive one out of the two of us though because I am younger and enjoy beating my older sister at things."

Coach Bonzi added, "At our home meet in 2019, Zoe passed Rose at about the halfway point, but Rose overtook her and finished ahead of her by a few seconds. Rose showed great poise as her sister finished ahead of her in competition for the first time at the next meet, which was KVACs and our first championship meet of the season. I think it was really tough on Rose to have her younger sister pass her, especially at the KVAC meet, but she has always had the interests of the team ahead of her own and showed great sportsmanship and support of the team as her sister enjoyed success. For the rest of the season Rose and Zoe competed right together and only seconds separated their times. They both supported each other and I believe their sibling rivalry pushed each other to finish well."

Distance running is one of the most physically and demanding. One must be motivated to break out of one's comfort zone. To feel pain and a bit of anguish. To push one's self to a place one did not expect.

"The best parts for me are being a part of the running community," Rose said. "Coming from a class of 20 [students] at Lincolnville Central School to the high school was difficult for me. I remember being completely overwhelmed and anxious after my first day freshman year, and a junior on the team I had only known from a week or so of summer training came up to me and gave me a big hug. It was the best thing anyone could have done at that moment. My running friends are all so amazing, and I'm so glad that Zoe can be a part of it. The worst part for me is the intense training — especially workouts on the track. I am always so tired after practice."

Zoe said: "The best part of being a runner is knowing that I can do something that many others can’t. It feels good to be strong and have the sense of accomplishment that comes with running. The worst part is definitely staying motivated throughout the year. Cross country may be a seasonal sport, but in order to be good and stay in shape for it you have to run all year long, and that means the winter too. It’s really hard for me after a long day at school when there is snow on the ground to be motivated enough to run a few miles."

What is race strategy?

Distance running also can give student-athletes time to think, reflect, plan a strategy or mode to attack the course.

Honest to a fault, perhaps, Rose said: "I would like to say that I have a strategy, but to be completely honest I usually just wish the race was over and wonder what I'm going to have for dinner while I'm running. I do try to do visualizations before my race though, and picture myself doing well."

Zoe added: "When racing I am normally only thinking one step ahead. When I am on the line I am thinking about how to get the best placing to start off, how fast I should go and for how far before settling down into my pace for the rest of the meet. During a race I try not to think about the end too much, because that just tends to make me lose focus and slow down. Instead I imagine picking off each girl in front of me and how I can catch up to them. When I’m crossing the finish line I just feel relief that it’s over and complete exhaustion."

All the hard work has paid personal and team dividends. And that puts smiles on the sisters' faces — after, of course, they recover from the intense training and races.

"We have amazing coaches, who not only come up with good workouts, but have also made our team super close," Rose said. "We all try really hard, and are very invested in the sport and each other's success. We also do a lot of team-bonding activities: team dinners, trips to trails across the state, 'buddy bags,' cheers, etc."

"Mostly I think our team has been so successful in recent years because of our coach, Helen Bonzi," Zoe said. "She pushes us and encourages us all to work hard. We have had some naturally-gifted runners on the team, but I think as teammates we also motivate each other really well which contributes to our success."

Obviously, the pandemic changed everything for the teenage siblings in the fall of 2020. Their running lives, school lives, well, lives overall were altered.

"Our season was definitely more relaxed, because we had less meets and practicing was harder," Rose said. "We also couldn't do a lot of the fun activities we usually do, like team dinners, which was sad. As for my teenage life, it has felt very slow. A lot of the clubs, activities, and things I would normally like to do with my friends aren't available. However, it has been nice to be less busy."

Zoe added, "This last season was really strange during the pandemic. We only had a few races and the ones we had were extremely small. It felt to me like I was sort of missing out on the season, even though I know that everyone is in the same boat as me and in the scope of things missing one cross-country season isn’t a big deal. Mainly it was hard because one of the biggest reasons why I like cross country is because of my team and being able to run with them, which wasn’t really possible this year due to us having to run 14 feet apart. This experience has also been pretty similar in the rest of my life. Not only do I feel like there are some big parts of my teenage years that I’m missing out on, but also just little things like being able to see and hang out with friends."

Of course, the siblings had dreams of competing in the state meet, as the Windjammers do annually, and qualifying for the New England championships, something they have done in recent year, but the states were canceled due to the pandemic.

'Huge impact on program'

Coach Bonzi said the O’Briens have made a huge impact on the high school cross-country program. As a freshman, Rose joined the team and firmly established herself as the solid backbone of the team, the coach said. Rose has been in the team's top four to seven runners since. Rose was part of the talented group that won the state championship in 2017.

"Rose has always been a very strong competitor and a delight to have on the team," Bonzi said. "She’s kind, works hard, she supports her teammates, and most importantly, Rose cares as deeply about how the team does as she does about her own success. Rose has struggled with minor injuries and personal setbacks, like most runners, students, and athletes do on occasion, but she uses her dedication to the team and love for the sport to set her compass.

"Although Rose is very competitive and pushes herself to do well, she always has a good time with her friends and teammates at practices, meets, and all the team functions. She makes it fun and enjoyable, but also has a very strong work ethic and challenges everyone to have as much fun and work as hard as she does. She’s a great leader and the kind of athlete every coach wants to have on their team."

Coach Bonzi said Zoe came to a strong varsity team as a freshman. "She joined a team of girls that had won the state championship, had tied as runners-up [at the states] the following year, and were hungry to prove themselves again and get that championship back. She had to make a place for herself in a very competitive environment, and jostle for a seat on the varsity team alongside her own sister. It was a very tough challenge. Zoe worked really hard to make the transition from the shorter middle school races to the high school distance of [5 kilometers, or 3.1 miles]. It took a little while for her to gear up to the demands of our practices and races."

But, of course, there is more to the daughters of Nicole Maynard and William O'Brien then lacing up their sneakers for a run.

"Besides running I am really into creative activities such as art and writing," Zoe said. "They are probably the two biggest things besides running that I do in my free time, especially during the pandemic."

Rose said she loves living on a farm "where I raise a flock of sheep and rake blueberries."

Bright, competitive future

And the future for the siblings includes continued experiences in high school for one and college for the other.

"I have recently applied to colleges, so I am excited to hear back from them," Rose said. "I hope to pursue a career in journalism. I am also excited to graduate and possibly go to my first prom. Other than that, it is very much up in the air."

"For the rest of the year I will mainly just be focusing on school and then in the summer, scooping ice cream at River Ducks with Rose," Zoe said. "Hopefully we will have a track season this spring which will help me to get in shape for next year's cross-country season. Running is very important to me and I am sure it is something that I will continue to do for the rest of my life."

Coach Bonzi said Zoe's competitive nature should serverher well in the future — on and off the course.

"I know Zoe is very competitive, but hadn’t realized how cutthroat she can be until this season," Bonzi said. "During the 'season of COVID' we trained fairly lightly and the boys and girls teams were mostly competing below their capabilities, though there were some intra-team rivalries during races and practices. All of it was good fun and a pleasure to see among a group of kids who were so grateful to have the cross-country team during such horrible times. There was a cornhole game set up on campus that I regularly saw people playing during the school days. When the team was off running easy runs or timed runs on campus I would often catch the athletes playing cornhole when they were meant to be running — oh those kids. So, when it looked like we weren’t going to be able to finish out our competition schedule we took a day off and held 'The Great CornHole Tournament” during practice to ease the strain.

"It was so much fun and the kids had a blast. They challenged each other to be the cornhole champion. Well, Zoe really showed her true colors. She was ruthless. She challenged everyone, she even resorted to cheating to win the matches. It was so hilarious because it was so obvious that she was determined to win at all costs. Deep down Zoe has it in her to excel against all comers. I’m looking forward to seeing how she competes over the final two years of her high school career.

"And, there’s another O’Brien sister who may decide to join the cross-country team next year. We’ll see. If Lucy O’Brien does decide to run cross country she might just be the fastest O’Brien sister, yet."

Another O'Brien runner for the Windjammers in the near future?

If that scenario plays out, it certainly will be bad news for Camden Hills' cross-country opponents, but, of course, positive news for the next chapters of the O'Brien family distance-running legacy.

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