Okamoto heads to front of the pack

Balers freshman Lauren Okamoto has posted some impressive times this season.

Lauren Okamoto decided to run on San Benito High’s cross country team this season to keep her in shape for soccer. Little did the freshman know how the sport would change her life.

“I didn’t expect to fall in love with cross country as much as I have,” she said. “I never expected to get to a point now where when I wake up I think, ‘What workout am I doing today?’”

Coaches love athletes like Okamoto because they have intrinsic motivation, or a pure love for a sport. Okamoto comes to practice everyday relishing the thought of improving and maximizing her enormous potential. That’s why Haybalers co-coach Ryan Shorey said before the season that Okamoto is a special talent who could go down as one of the best runners the school has had in recent memory.

Okamoto led the San Benito girls team to victory in the first Monterey Bay League Gabilan Division Meet at Toro Park on Sept. 20. She finished second overall in 19 minutes, 52 seconds, setting a personal-record (PR) by one second. Teammate Elli Kliewer took third in 20:04, Mariah Changco was 11th in 21:08, Samantha Cortez was 17th in 21:40, Hailey Cross was 21st in 21:57, Makenna Parks was 23rd in 22:00 and Emily Quinby was 25th in 22:23.

This was the third time the Balers have run at Toro Park this season, and Okamoto finds herself liking the venerable course more each time.

“I’m getting more comfortable there, and I’m excited to hopefully PR the next time we go there,” she said. “As time goes on, I think I’ll get better.”

Okamoto ran the Toro Park course in 19:53 in the race before the first league meet, passing several runners not just on the uphill portion of the course but on the downhill.

“Hills tend to be one of my strengths,” she said. “Over the summer I trained hard doing a ton of hill repeats. I try to use that to my advantage going up, but also going down where I can carry my momentum. A lot of people slow down on the downhill, so it’s a chance to make a great move.”

With a maturity that belies her age, the 14-year-old Okamoto is making up for lost time after having chronically sore knees in middle school. That is why Okamoto competed in just one track meet and zero cross country races while at Spring Grove School. It’s little wonder Okamoto never realized how much talent she possessed until the summer, when she clocked a fast time in the team’s time trials.

A quick start to the season only further bolstered Okamoto’s confidence.

“When I started to hit faster times, it opened up a lot of doors for me,” she said. “I realized I could go far in the sport if I continued to train hard.”

And that’s exactly what Okamoto has done. Healthy for the first time in a while—Okamoto is fully recovered from double knee surgery approximately 18 months ago—the freshman is running with vigor, focus and peace of mind.

“The orthopedic surgeon said I had extra cartilage in my kneecaps, which caused a lot of cramping,” she said. “When I went in to get the surgery, they cleaned it all out. I did about six weeks of physical therapy twice a week, and they gave me stretches and exercises to do at home. The doctors were very optimistic that after physical therapy I’d be 100 percent, and I feel that way. I’ve come full circle and a long way compared to where I was before the surgery.”

Okamoto said her parents, Denise and Jason, provided tremendous support throughout the surgery process. She also credited her main P.E. teacher at Spring Grove, Addie Hain, for being such a positive influence in her life. Okamoto also had David Kaplansky as a teacher, and said Spring Grove encourages kids to exercise and stay fit.

“Spring Grove prides themselves on their athletics,” she said. “They have really good P.E. coaches and a great athletics program. They’re very serious about their running, and it’s a positive thing.”

Shorey said Okamoto’s positive, can-do attitude is infectious.

“Ultimately, Lauren is just the salt of the earth, and I couldn’t be happier to have her with us,” he said. “She is making moves to become the next standout in an already storied program. I saw the potential early on, and I’m glad to see she hasn’t backed down from the challenge. I know in some sense she has even surprised herself. I have certainly pressured her a little, but she has responded extremely well.”

Okamoto has basically played sports ever since she could walk. She grew up playing basketball, softball, tennis and soccer, with the latter always being her favorite. However, cross country has overtaken soccer as the sport she is most passionate about. Even though soccer brings Okamoto plenty of satisfaction and joy, cross country has proved to be an almost spiritual and transcendental experience.

“I like to see how much I can push myself, not just physically but mentally,” she said. “To push through that pain and get a PR, it’s the best feeling in the world. Sports have always been an outlet for me. It’s a great experience being a part of a team, and I appreciate the social aspects involved with sports as well.”

Fully aware of her high ceiling, Okamoto is already thinking about the future—that’s how much she enjoys running.

“This is my first year of (doing extended) training, and I’ll be able to train more on my own and with my teammates in the future,” she said.

After Okamoto finishes a race, she has thoughts on how she can improve, which in turn gets her excited to race again. It’s often said that athletes should focus on the present; however, Okamoto has shown the rare ability to focus on the present and the future. And for Okaomoto, that’s a beautiful thing.

“I’m really excited for the next cross country season,” she said. “I can’t wait.”

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