The Road to Nationals: Maggie Callahan
Nov. 18, 2009
Junior out of Alaska takes senior role on young XC squad
By Jeremy Hawkes
Looking at Maggie Callahan's past, it seems unlikely to find one person in Alaska more likely to compete for the athletic program at the University of Arizona.
The Wildcat junior cross country runner out of Fairbanks, Ala. was surrounded by Tucson ties just about everywhere. Her high school distance coach at West Valley High School, Doug Herron, is a former UA All-American and holds the school's second fastest 800-meter time in history. Her assistant basketball coach, Mike Lessley, was a member of the first - and only - team that legendary UA basketball coach Lute Olson coached at Long Beach State.
'It just seemed like once I was committed (to Arizona), there were connections everywhere I looked,' Callahan said. 'And you know everyone in Alaska seems to have some relative or a summer home down there.'
Callahan's high school tenure was an impressive one as she would earn 15 varsity letters in four different sports (cross country, track and field, basketball and softball). In fact, Callahan was so talented in all those activities that before her junior year she was still undecided as to which she wanted to pursue collegiately.
It was during her breakout junior year as a runner that the future became evident for her. Callahan's squad won the State Championship and Callahan was the individual champion in the mile and two miles at the same meet.
'That year was pretty defining for me,' Callahan said of the junior season. 'Basketball and softball were more fun but I was better at running.'
After that year, Callahan's squad did a little more traveling she got a chance to compete in a couple races in the 'lower 48' as she calls them, referring to the continental United States. The rising level of her performances and the addition of being awarded the Alaska Gatorade Track and Field Athlete of the Year award helped Callahan garner the attention of some Division-I coaches.
Her ties to the city and university eventually paid their dividends and the All-Conference steeplechaser and leader of the first UA cross country team to qualify for nationals in eight years has made quite the splash in Arizona ever since her arrival.
Callahan has been a constantly improving athlete, setting a personal record in every track event she competed in consecutively from her first race in an Arizona uniform up until the end of the season last year at the UA-ASU-NAU Double Dual. Even then, she bounced back at the very next race - the Pac-10 Conference Championships - to set a new personal record of 10:30.71 to earn All-Conference honors in the 3000-meter steeplechase, the fourth fastest time in UA history.
Her career in running could be partly attributed to her parents as well, her dad once a competing at UC-Riverside and her mother being an avid recreational runner. Her parents have always been very supportive of Callahan's running career as well, to the point where often you might find one of both of them trekking down from Alaska to see their daughter in action.
'They never missed a meet in high school so its almost weird when they are not there,' Callahan said. 'They would be at every race if they could.'
The 3000-plus mile distance from home can be trying on some student-athletes, but Callahan firmly stands behind her decision to come to Arizona.
Her feelings on the subject may be a sign of the maturity beyond her years that she exhibits, a fact that members of coaches of the team find is almost as impressive as her performances on the course.
'She's your ideal student-athlete,' said UA head cross country coach James Li. 'She's dependable and consistent and every time she lines up you know you are going to get the best performance she can give you that day.'
'Maggie is a coach's dream,' added UA assistant coach Erin Dawson. 'She has totally bought in to what we are doing here and she's not a selfish person and is always looking for the best.'
'Mama Mags' as some members of the team have dubbed her, found herself in an interesting situation this season as far as cross country is concerned as she had to make the transition from being one of the younger girls on the team last year to being the oldest as only a junior this year.
As if it weren't enough that she was put into that leadership role, she was also tasked with a class of 12 freshmen who made up more than a majority of a the team - a situation that some others may have cringed at the thought of.
'She really took on the leadership role she was put in and whether it's leading in the weight room or leading the practice runs she has really been someone to look up to as that mentor sort of person,' said freshman Megan Meyer.
Callahan has continued to be the cornerstone of the team throughout the season as far as competition is concerned, posting some of the fastest marks of her career this season.
'I knew coming into the season that I was going to be the oldest and most experienced person on the team,' she said. 'I didn't necessarily know I would be the first runner but that has been nice to me able to lead on and off the course.'
And lead on the course she has, pacing the Wildcats in every meet of the season and earning All-Conference and All-Region nods along the way. Despite her own personal success, Callahan credits the team as a whole - especially the freshmen, who could very easily have come in and not lived up to the billing.
'The transition went really smooth and (the freshmen) came in ready to run hard and listen to us,' she said. 'They were all really receptive to the habits, practices and lifestyles.'
Now, with just a couple days separating the junior and her posse of underclassmen from the UA's first National Championship appearance in nearly a decade, Callahan will be put in the same role she has been in all season - only this time it will be in the biggest race of her life.
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