The Desert Vista girls’ cross country program, fresh off a state-championship performance at the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s final meet of the season, now adds the title “national champion” to its 2020 resume.
The Thunder girls qualified for the Nike Cross Virtual Championship after submitting race times from the sectional and state championship races. Those times were good enough for the Thunder to place first overall in the region – typically held in-person in Casa Grande with teams from Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and other surrounding states. This year, however, the regionals and finals were held virtually due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
After submitting times on Saturday, Nov. 21 from the championship race, Desert Vista was crowned national champion on Tuesday, Nov. 24.
“I’m very proud,” Ping said. “We sent them all a text message and had them come to our house. Nike sent this humongous box with the race supplies and they all got in and jumped out for a video. It was really cute.”
Typically, teams who qualify for the national race at regionals are flown to Nike Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., where they are given a wide variety of cross country gear, including backpacks, spikes, shoes and other items. Nike also pays for flights, hotels and meals for each team, creating a one-of-a-kind experience for the athletes.
Nike canceled the in-person championships back in July due to the pandemic, and instead sent each team a large crate with everything teams would need to run the race in the comfort of their own community. Desert Vista ran the race at Tumbleweed Park in Chandler, arriving early enough to avoid foot traffic from others in the park
“We did it early in the morning and all the sprinklers went off right before our race, so that was kind of crazy,” Ping said. “There was still traffic coming through with cars but there weren’t that many people at the park.”
Dave Shapiro and Jeff Guy, two of the state’s ambassadors for cross country and track and field, helped set up the course for the Thunder using the supplies from Nike.
A regional director from Nike was flown out to watch the race, and a professional company was hired to time it. Teams from across the country had from Nov. 16-24 to run the 5K race and submit times.
Lauren Ping, Ping’s sophomore daughter and first-place winner of the AIA race, finished fourth overall in the national race with a time of 17 minutes, 2.2 seconds. Desert Vista junior Katie Sigerud, who placed second in the AIA race, set a new personal record in the 5K at 17 minutes, 4.1 seconds to place just behind Lauren in fifth.
Senior Grace Ping, who has battled through injuries all season, placed 18th overall in the national race. Sophomores Emily Littlefield and Bailee Christofis placed 31st and 51st, respectively, while senior Olivia Thatcher placed 35th. Brooklyn Hanania, the youngest runner on the team as a freshman, placed 71st in the Nike national championship.
“I think they’re extremely talented,” Ping said. “We’ve had a lot of races back-to-back, so the fact they were able to get up for this race and treat it like a national championship and run those times when it was just them, it says a lot about them.
“It shows how much they care about the sport and the dedication and work they’ve put into cross country.”
Competing in the Nike national championship is familiar territory for Ping and her two daughters.
In seventh grade, Grace qualified for the championship race and was able to travel to Beaverton. Since then, she’s qualified every year, with Lauren joining her. While Ping said she missed the experience of competing in Oregon and have it feel like a true national championship, she enjoyed sharing the moment with her girls and husband Ryan, who helps coach the Thunder.
The moment was especially special with Grace, who will go off to Oklahoma State on a full ride scholarship next year.
“It feels really good,” Ping said. “I just wish Grace could have been at full strength. She was definitely very happy but I think a piece of her wished she was healthy like she should be. It was fun to have the parents out there cheering.
“It was just a great experience.”
Despite competing in and winning the Nike national championship, Ping said the season isn’t quite done for some of the girls. Lauren, Grace, Sigerud and Hanania on Dec. 3 are flying to Tallahassee, Fla. to compete in the AAU National Cross Country Championships.
It will be yet another chance for the girls to showcase their talents before looking ahead to the new season.
“It will be as close to a normal championship as you can get,” Ping said. “The only downfall is you’re paying for your own tickets, which is why some of the girls couldn’t go with us. But they’re excited to compete.”