March 13, 2010

An unbeaten season, and just getting started

GLENN JORDAN

— By

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Abbey Leonardi, of Kennebunk, wins the Western Maine Class A Cross Country state championships in Cumberland Saturday, October 25, 2008.

Jack Milton

Staff Writer

She fell on a tight curve during the state meet. Her asthma acted up at the New England meet.

Gadzooks, what might Abbey Leonardi do if everything goes smoothly?

''She's a phenomenon, she really is,'' said Michael LeBlanc, her middle school coach when she began running in sixth grade. ''If things go well, she'll be in the Olympics.''

One thing was certain this autumn. No girl in New England was better at cross country running than Leonardi, a freshman at Kennebunk High who won every race she entered. She won regional, state and New England championships, with fellow freshman Emily Durgin of Bonny Eagle runner-up each step of the way.

Of the four Maine freshman girls who stunned the regional running community by finishing 1-2-6-9 at New Englands -- Abby Mace of Maranacook and Fiona Hendry of Cheverus were the others -- Leonardi, our MVP for girls' cross country, is the slightest in stature. She's humble and soft spoken, unfailingly polite.

Don't be fooled by the placid demeanor. Behind the smallish frame and graceful strides lies the fiercest of competitors.

''She's a beautiful runner with great form,'' said Kennebunk Coach Mike Dinehart, ''but she also does the other component, which is that she pushes herself and she's willing to run through that pain.''

Take the Class A state meet, when Leonardi picked herself up after falling a third of the way into the race. She bided her time as Durgin surged ahead, and wound up winning by more than 13 seconds in 18 minutes, 2.97 seconds.

Or the New England meet, when it seemed Leonardi wouldn't be able to hang on.

''That's the worst I've felt during a race,'' she said. ''I just didn't feel as strong as I normally do.''

Credit the victory -- by less than three seconds -- to the thoughts that kept Leonardi plugging away.

''I just (thought) about if I got second, I would be mad,'' she said, ''and even though I felt bad, I know I would regret not pushing it as hard as I could. It's fine (to finish other than first), but I know I would be mad at myself if I didn't try my hardest.''

Leonardi moved with her family from Massachusetts to Maine before sixth grade. She has a twin sister, Alex, who plays soccer and softball. Both were competitive Alpine skiers. Once in Kennebunk, Abbey decided to give running a whirl.

''She listens so well,'' said LeBlanc, a retired police officer from Kennebunk with a strong belief in form and technique. ''She is such an incredibly coachable young lady. It wasn't too long before she perfected that form.''

A straight-A student so far in high school, Leonardi didn't listen only to her coaches. She read the running books LeBlanc recommended, by Jack Daniels and Jeff Galloway. She learned to love hills. Most important, she learned what works for her.

''Just hard work and not being too serious about it,'' she said. ''I go hard on my hard days and easier on my easy days and not do a ton of miles.''

It worked well enough to make Leonardi the first New England female champion from Maine since girls were added to the race in 1977. The only goal she missed this fall was breaking 18 minutes in a race.

Of course, she's not done yet.

Saturday, she will run in the Foot Locker Northeast Regional race in New York City's Van Cortlandt Park, hoping to become the first Maine girl to qualify for the national championships since Gladys Ganiel of Narraguagas in 1994.

''I expect she might be able to qualify,'' Dinehart said. ''She'll get pushed at that level. At the Maine high school level, we haven't seen anybody who can touch her.''

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

gjordan@pressherald.com

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