It wasn't all that long ago that Natalie Anderson was the freshman phenom for the Sehome cross country and track programs.
She burst onto the scene in a big way during the 2009 cross country season.
"My most vivid memory of Natalie I'm always going to remember is how this little freshman probably saved the state meet for us," Mariners cross country and track co-coach Kevin Ryan said in a phone interview. "Her freshman year, she ran out of her head at the state meet."
Ryan said he was worried about lumping too much pressure on an inexperienced runner, but he didn't let up during a pre-race meeting, telling a then 14-year-old Anderson that she was the key to the Mariners' quest to win a fourth straight Class 2A team title and that the team needed her to stick with No. 4 runner Katie Delahunt and never let the junior out of her sight.
"She went out, and Katie dragged her all over the course, and she didn't tire at the end," Ryan said. "There was a whole group of runners that passed her right before the finish and she ended up finishing 30th, but that group included a former state champion and a number of other runners expected to finish in the top 10, and Natalie was ahead of them for most of the race. We needed everything to go our way that year, and Natalie helped make sure it did. We ended up winning by two points. There's no way Sehome has as many state titles without Natalie Anderson."
Now a senior, Anderson admits she might have been a little naive at that point in time.
"I didn't know how it all worked," Anderson said in a phone interview. "I was just running. I didn't realize that when a strong freshman comes in, somebody else might lose their place."
Anderson learned that lesson the hard way, as she was the displaced veteran who ended up losing her spot when a talented group of freshmen came into the Sehome program this fall.
Despite that, a host of injury complications and a series of self doubts and questions about how far she wanted to continue competitive running, Anderson has persevered.
She's now using the spring track season to work herself fully back into shape following a hip injury and get ready for a collegiate running career at Lewis & Clark College.
"I was not totally sure a few months ago that I wanted to run in college," Anderson said. "I knew college running is a huge commitment. I wasn't sure I would have enough time to enjoy myself with everything going on. But then I realized that I do love running, and I want to see what my potential is and how high I can reach as a college runner."
Reaching her potential has been something that Anderson has struggled with the last couple of years.
Not that she wasn't putting everything she had into running, but it seemed something kept popping up to rob her of really reaching what she saw as her potential.
As a junior, she said she battled tendonitis in her foot throughout the cross country season. Last spring, it was an iron deficiency that robbed her of strength and endurance.
This fall it was a hip that bothered her throughout.
But the hip really was only part of the obstacle to overcome, as the Mariners welcomed a strong freshman class highlighted by three outstanding individuals.
"There are always one or two freshmen that come in fast," Anderson said. "That was me my freshman year. But this year, there was an overwhelming amount of talented runners. Each of them are great teammates and so sweet. They're the kind of people you can't get mad at, but it was difficult to accept on an individual level."
With all three freshmen moving up the Sehome running ladder, and defending state champion Emily Pittis already on top, that left precious few spots on the Mariners' varsity seven for veterans, such as Anderson.
As the postseason neared, Anderson tried to respond and prove to herself and her coaches that she deserved to be on Sehome's postseason roster by turning in a strong performance at the Northwest Conference Championships. She succeeded, finishing 16th with a season-best time of 19 minutes, 47.14 seconds.
But in the process, Ryan said she may have aggravated her hip.
"She ran a time at conference that would have been top seven on any other school in the state," Ryan said. "She really responded, but her hip started bothering her more and more. When that happened, we had to make a tough choice."
It was a choice Anderson said really hurt her as she watched from the sidelines as her team raced without her at the district meet and was only marginally easier a week later at state.
"There are two ways you can go with something like that," Ryan said. "Obviously she was disappointed. But you can sulk and make everyone around you miserable, or you can accept it and try to figure out how you can make the most out of the opportunity. ... Natalie decided she wanted to help her team any way she could. She was a senior captain this year, and she really acted like one even when she wasn't out there on the course running. She did everything she could to help those younger runners succeed."
And succeed they did, as they ended up reclaiming the team title.
"It was righteous," Anderson said. "It was the perfect way to end my cross country career. It seemed very fitting. I was really proud, and I was really happy."
But she also started to wonder if that was the end of her running career.
How much did she really want to continue running in college?
A couple months away answered that question for her.
"Track definitely re-inspired me," she said. "I started thinking, 'Maybe I'll give college running a try. I don't have to stick with it if I don't love it, but I know I have way more potential than I've seen.'"
Anderson set out this spring to make sure she was healthy by this summer so that she could try to reach that potential when she stepped on the Lewis & Clark campus in Portland, Ore.
The process hasn't always been as quick as she would like.
Just Wednesday, April 17, she had to shut down a practice session because her hip started to bother her a little bit, and she's only run in competition three times, turning in a 5:56.69 in the 1,600 on Friday, April 19, at the Northwest Conference Championships - nearly 25 seconds off her personal best in the event from when she was a sophomore.
"We're trying to be cautious and patient with her right now," Ryan said. "We have some workouts where we'll have her jog a minute and walk two minutes. She's basically starting over at ground zero. Running just under 6 minutes may not sound like much, but considering how far she's come back from injury, it's a big deal. She's happy not to be feeling pain or any wear and tear. Hopefully we'll keep building and get her qualified for the postseason - something that used to be an automatic with her, but now we'll just take things as they come and keep getting her ready."
Though Anderson, who said she is undecided on a major but leaning toward environmental science, said she has not yet turned in her paperwork to officially state her intentions to run at Lewis & Clark next year, she said she's anxious for the opportunity to continue competing.
That's what drew her to running for the Mariners in the first place and something she said she really enjoyed, in spite of any difficulties that popped up.
"Basically, running for Sehome was the time of my life while it lasted," she said. "I made a lot of great friends and developed a real appreciation for the sport. I never knew that it was going to become something that was so important to me. ... I thought Coach Ryan and Coach (Mark) Kerr and all the coaches at Sehome were literally the best. I'm so grateful to have had them and all my teammates in my life the last four years."
Reach David Rasbach at email@example.com or 360-715-2286.
Reach DAVID RASBACH at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2271.