Never too early for this senior to rise, shine
This story appeared in the Arizona edition of the November ESPN RISE Magazine.
The Xavier Prep (Phoenix, Ariz.) girls' cross country team practices Monday through Saturday at 5 a.m. during the season. The early start is necessary for the Gators to get in a good workout before the sun starts scorching.
Van Sickle can also count on his star runner, senior Jessica Tonn, being there before everyone else.
"She beats the coaches to practice, and I'm not exaggerating," says Van Sickle, who's in his 20th year at the helm of the girls' cross country and track teams. "We start practice at 5, and she's there at 4:45 waiting for me to open the gate. I should give her the key. She's there ready to go when all her teammates show up. That speaks volumes."
A true leader by example, Tonn has shown a steadfast commitment to her sport. And it's yielded magnificent results.
The defending Class 5A, Division I cross country state champ, Tonn was rated the nation's No. 4 girls' cross country runner in the DyeStat Elite Top 25 at press time. She qualified for the Foot Locker National Championships her first three years of high school and is a contender for the national title this season. She won Gatorade State Player of the Year honors last season not only in cross country but also in track, a sport in which she is an eight-time individual state champion.
At press time, she was considering scholarship offers from Duke, Oregon, Stanford, Georgetown and Washington.
Not bad for someone who didn't get serious about running until the summer heading into her eighth-grade year. Prior to that, Tonn focused most of her time on soccer while competing sparingly with her club running program.
Despite the limited running experience, Tonn managed to display incredible raw talent in the sport. In sixth grade, she placed first in her age group at a regional USATF Junior Olympics cross country meet and went on to finish third at nationals, all with very little practice.
"It was so shocking," she says. "That was the point where I really knew I could run and pursue a career in it."
Tonn gave up soccer to focus on running after the seventh grade and began working with Dr. Jeff Messer, a former star distance runner at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Messer, who specializes in exercise physiology, had previously trained athletes such as Kari Hardt, a two-time cross country state champ at Queen Creek who now runs for Arizona State.
Messer, the co-head coach at Xavier with Van Sickle, noticed Tonn already had the natural speed and skill to be a good runner, but she needed to improve her aerobic capacity if she wanted to become elite. Tonn gradually advanced in that area, and by the time she reached Xavier she was confident she could excel.
"He's been amazing," Tonn says. "He almost knows me better than I know myself when it comes to training. He's been a big part of everything I've done and helped me believe in myself."
As a freshman, Tonn finished second at the 5A-I state cross country meet. She also starred on the national stage, placing third at the Foot Locker West Regional and 24th at the Foot Locker National Championships.
"I was really nervous," she says. "But I realized I needed to live in the moment [because I] only had three days to spend with the top 40 runners in the country."
But that wouldn't be Tonn's only trip to nationals. As a sophomore, she followed a third-place showing at state by finishing third at the Foot Locker West Regional and 20th at the National Championships. Last year, she captured her first individual cross country state title in dominant fashion, recording a time of 17:50.90 that was more than a minute faster than the second-place mark and helped Xavier win its second consecutive team title. She went on to take fourth at the Foot Locker West Regional and 10th at the National Championships.
Tonn has been just as successful in track. She is the three-time defending champ in both the 1,600 and 3,200 and has won two consecutive titles in the 800.
"Her success is a testament to her work ethic," Messer says. "She's shown an uncompromising commitment and a strong desire to be great. She's a tremendous role model."
Tonn also sets an example when she isn't running. The owner of a 4.2 GPA, Tonn is always willing to help others. The past two summers, she's worked at the Arizona Magic of Music & Dance Camp for children and young adults with physical and mental disabilities. She has also helped high school runners from across the country who've contacted her through Facebook, offering advice on training and balancing school with running.
"I really enjoy helping people," Tonn says. "If I have a gift I can help people with, then I do it. It really makes everything I do worth it and motivates me because there are people who look up to me, and I need to continue to be a person they can look up to."
"She's had more success than any girl I've ever known, yet she maintains her humility and grace in all that she does," Messer adds.
Even at 4:45 a.m.
Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.
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