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Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Updated: May 5, 9:31 AM ET
Ornelas setting the pace

By Matt Remsberg
ESPN RISE Magazine

As the son of an Army military intelligence officer, Zach Ornelas spent his youth on the move. He experienced the Great Southwest while living 25 miles from the Mexican border at Arizona's Fort Huachuca. He felt the chill of Northeast winters some 25 miles from the Canadian border at New York's Fort Drum. He called America's Heartland his home when he lived in the dead center of the country at Kansas' Fort Leavenworth.

ESPN RISE Magazine
Cover boy Zach Ornelas is modeling his racing style after Steve Prefontaine.

There were plenty of other stops along the way. But through it all, running was a constant for Ornelas. And as he began taking the sport more seriously, one quote stuck with him, driving him to work hard day after day -- even as his surroundings changed year after year.

"To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift."

Now a Vista Ridge (Cedar Park, Texas) senior, Ornelas has that Steve Prefontaine quote posted on a wall in his bedroom so it's one of the first things he sees when he wakes up and one of the last things he sees before bed. On another wall in his room is a display shelf holding the 100-plus medals and trophies he has won by racing with that attitude.

"I was really drawn to Prefontaine's story -- the way he came from a good, honest family and maybe didn't have the best shoes or equipment but just outworked everyone," Ornelas says. "I liked that his style was to always go to the front and push the pace. He didn't see the point in holding back and then trying to outkick people. I race the exact same way."

That approach helped Prefontaine win seven NCAA championships and hold, at one time, every American record from the 2,000 to 10,000 meters. It's also worked out well for Ornelas (pronounced or-nell-iss), as the Michigan recruit is an All-American in cross country, a state medalist in outdoor track and a national champion in the steeplechase.

"He loves to run, and he runs tough," says Ornelas' father, Drew. "I can't imagine racing him is much fun because there's no time to ease into things. The race is on at full speed from the start."

It was actually a humiliating loss to his father that kick-started Ornelas' running career. The duo regularly competed in road races beginning when Zach was 6, and after a few years they were running comparable times. But at the Houston Marathon 5k when Zach was 9, he wasn't having a great race so he slowed his pace, only to watch his father take off ahead of him.

Zach crossed the finish line in tears and vowed to take running more seriously from that point on. He began reading running magazines and studying proper technique. And he most certainly never lost to his father again. As Ornelas moved around the country, he gained valuable experience as a runner on different types of terrain, in different types of weather and against different styles of competitors. He used that knowledge to immediately emerge as one of the Lone Star State's elite athletes when he arrived at Vista Ridge as a junior. That fall, he took third in the Region IV-4A cross country meet and seventh at state. He added a silver in the 3,200 at state last spring.

Zach Ornelas Favorites

The Rangers moved up a class to 5A and jumped to Region II for the 2008-09 school year, but Ornelas hasn't missed a beat. In cross country this past fall, he was second at regionals and state to The Woodlands' Reed Connor, the Gatorade National Cross Country Athlete of the Year. Ornelas also qualified for the Nike Cross Nationals, which were held in Portland, Ore., and he placed ninth to earn All-American honors.

"That was a proper cross country course with the kind of hills you never see in Texas," Vista Ridge cross country coach David Hilsenteger says. "Zach took it all in stride and showed what he was made of."

The same wide-ranging set of experiences that enabled Ornelas to succeed on a hilly course in Portland is also responsible for introducing him to the event he one day hopes to compete in at the Olympics: the steeplechase. The event is rarely contested in Texas but was popular in New York, where Ornelas lived as a freshman and sophomore. Realizing he had a pretty good chance of breaking the school record, Ornelas asked his coach if he could try it at the next meet.

Not eager to lose his star distance runner to an injury in a 2,000-meter race that is interspersed with oversized hurdles and a shallow water pit, his coach gave him one chance. If he broke the school record, he could add the steeplechase to his repertoire. If he fell short, he had to stick to regular distance events. Ornelas broke the school record by more than 20 seconds in his first attempt.

"I was a hardcore skateboarder in middle school and still have that bold personality," Ornelas says. "Basically anything I can do where it's possible to break an ankle, I'm into it. So when I found out there was a track event that involved jumping over a water pit, I was like, 'This is what I want to do.'"

Ornelas nearly broke the meet record in winning the steeplechase at the Texas Relays last spring, and a few months later he won the event at Nike Outdoor Nationals. While the steeplechase will be his No. 1 priority at Michigan, another activity he picked up while living in New York might be a close No. 2: rapping. Something he and two friends began doing out of boredom on bus rides has turned into a serious hobby just a few years later.

He still collaborates with his original partners by sending verses back and forth on the Internet, but Ornelas is more focused on his solo career as the aptly named Strydefast. He spent nearly all the money he earned working construction for two summers on studio and production equipment and put on his first public performance at a recent open-mic night.

"I pretty much stick to rapping about girls and running," Ornelas says. "You know, typical high school stuff." But really, it's clear Ornelas is anything but the typical high schooler.

Matt Remsberg covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.