Two-time Foot Locker finalist Catarina Rocha of Peabody (Peabody, Mass.) was unaware that both of her parents ran in the national championship event until just over a year ago.
Rocha, a junior who finished seventh on Dec. 10 at San Diego’s Balboa Park, said she had never heard of the Foot Locker meet until she came out for the cross country team at the start of the 2010 season.
As it turns out, she has a special place in the history of the meet. Rocha is the first child of two previous finalists to quality for the championship.
“I didn’t even know,” she said. “(My parents) don’t make a big deal out of it.”
The family’s history with the meet extends all the way back to the first Kinney Cross Country Championship in 1979. Catarina’s uncle, Fernando Braz, ran in the inaugural race and was 15th.
Three years later, Jose Rocha (he goes by Joe now), competed in the 1982 race in Orlando. He also placed 15th.
And two years after that, in 1984, Gina Braz, Fernando’s little sister, ran in San Diego, where she finished 21st.
Fernando, Joe and Gina all left their mark at Boston College as well. Joe Rocha and Fernando Braz still hold down the Nos. 1 and 2 all-time performances in the 10,000 meters in BC history. Gina was a standout on the BC cross country team.
It was in college, running for the Eagles, where Gina met Joe. She was a freshman and he was a junior. Their common past as Kinney national finalists would have been part of their earliest conversations.
“We talked about it a little bit,” Gina said. “We probably talked about our experiences (at the meet), but they were at different sites.”
Joe said his memories of the 1982 race have faded over the years.
“The only think I remember is spending the day at Disney World and being tired before the race,” he said.
Gina and Joe continued to run after their marriage. Joe qualified for the 1988 Olympic Trials in the 10,000 but was injured before he got the starting line. Gina qualified for the Olympic marathon trials in 2004 but got hurt during the race and didn’t finish.
Braz-Rocha coaching connection
Fernando and Joe coach together in Peabody. Fernando is the boys track and field coach for the indoor and outdoors seasons. Joe is the head cross country coach and has the girls during indoor and outdoor track.
So it would only be natural that in this environment Catarina would be groomed for running success, right?
Well, not necessarily. Catarina grew up playing soccer (although she did run cross country in middle school) and when she entered Peabody as a freshman she turned out for soccer and made the varsity lineup.
“As she was growing up we never pushed her in any direction,” Gina said. “Our hope is that she would find something she was passionate about. She was in soccer and that’s what we supported her in.”
Gina played basketball in middle school, too. But at Peabody she decided to try indoor track and she fell in love with it.
Still, in the summer before her sophomore year, Catarina’s parents figured that she was going to return to soccer. They were surprised when she signed up to join her father’s cross country team.
“She never said that she wanted to be a runner, but she had a little bit of success her freshman year running the mile,” Joe said. “We had invested so much time and money into soccer that, as a parent, we were like ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’”
Catarina was firm in her decision to pursue running and she hasn’t looked back since. As a sophomore she won the Division I state meet and placed second in the all-state meet.
Her father wanted to take a few boys to the Foot Locker regional meet and Catarina asked if she could go too. She tagged along – and placed eighth to earn a trip to San Diego.
“We were really surprised that she qualified,” Gina said.
Catarina was still brand new to high school cross country. She finished 31st.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I went for the experience. It was kind of cool to watch everyone else.”
As a junior, Catarina took her training a bit more seriously and brought her 5,000-meter times down.
Moving up at Foot Locker
At San Diego, she had a handle on what to expect. She planned to stay in the top 15 for as long as she could. She held her ground in the chase pack – behind eventual 1-2 Molly Seidel and Erin Finn – and moved up from ninth to seventh in the last final 400 meters. She improved on her 2010 performance at Balboa Park by 56 seconds.
It was the best result in family history. And she could potentially come back for another crack at it in 2012.
“We play things down a little,” Gina said of the family’s history with the meet.
Catarina has been the one asking the questions, prying information from her parents about their experiences. She has never seen photos or videos of her parents’ races at the Kinney championships.
“I wasn’t at the level (Catarina) was at,” Gina said. “I was 21st. I was overwhelmed with the competition there. But I was also far more nervous watching Catarina than I was running it.”
Those who watch Catarina run say that her form is reminiscent of her father. But her racing instincts, and her kick, come from her mother.
“I am very proud of her as a dad and very proud as a coach,” Joe said. “I knew she was ripe to run in the 17:30s. At the regional she ran conservative and was just trying to (qualify). One of her strengths is that she knows what she wants to do. She rises to the competition even though it is still very new to her.”
Running, and the Foot Locker (Kinney) Finals, are in her blood.
“It’s kind of cool knowing your dad and mom and uncle did it,” Catarina said. “And now me. I’m part of that history now.”
The family legacy may not end with Catarina. She has two younger brothers as well as cousins (children of Fernando and another uncle, Helder) who are on their way up as well.