NORTH VERNON — Jennings County sophomore Olivia Heaton and junior Jessica Bryant were warming down from their Rushville Invitational cross-country race, but their sportsmanship was just warming up.
Heaton and Bryant, along with their Panthers varsity teammates, had joined junior varsity runner Alyssha Cloud near the end of the open race that followed the Division I varsity races Aug. 31.
Jennings girls coach Leah Brock had been running with Cloud since the beginning of the 5,000-meter (3.1-mile) event, and they were about a half-mile from the finish.
As the Panthers contingent passed Indianapolis Scecina Memorial junior Gabi Leffler, they noticed she was struggling in the 90-degree heat. So Heaton and Bryant stayed back and encouraged Leffler along to the finish.
“The whole time we were running, we were talking to people, and the last half-mile, the rest of the team was doing their cool down, so I told them to go ahead and join in to help Alyssha because she was getting tired,” Brock said. “So they were encouraging her, and then they spotted the (Leffler) girl, so they branched away and helped her finish.”
Leffler is running cross-country for the first time this year. Her time of 36 minutes, 52 seconds was her second-best of the season.
Scecina coach Ryan Keen came upon Leffler, Heaton and Bryant near the end of the race and told his runner that the Panthers runners were already giving her the same words of encouragement that he would have used.
“We told her basically how we wish people would talk to us and not to focus on how far she has to run and the pain,” Bryant said. “Just focus on the breathing and try clearing her mind.”
“I told her there was water at the end,” said Heaton, who is Jennings’ No. 1 runner.
Bryant, who is also a cheerleader, said a lot of runners, not only on her cross-country team, but on teams they compete against, are encouraging.
“Even when you’re running a race, when you’re passing someone, you tell them ‘Good job. Keep going,’” Bryant said. “If you’re staying with someone for a while, you start competing with each other and will push each other.
“We all feel (pain),” she said. “We know how hard running is and how horrible sometimes you feel. You just wish that someone would come and push you to keep going.”
Keen was so touched by the kindness of Heaton and Bryant that he wrote a five-paragraph email to Panthers athletics director Mike Broughton. Broughton, who is a member of the IHSAA board of directors, forwarded the email to the IHSAA, which is pushing good sportsmanship.
“It was so awesome to watch how these two young ladies positively encouraged and supported my athlete through the end,” Keen wrote in the email. “They were alongside of her all the way through to the finish. I was truly taken aback by the sportsmanship kindness these two girls displayed.
“These two young ladies made the Jennings County family proud and really showed the values that are taught in the homes and schools of Jennings County community,” he said. “This act of kindness is a result of a close community with great school with teachers and coaches teaching kids what is right.”
That note resonates with Brock.
“I don’t care whether we win or lose or what my numbers are,” Brock said. “We may not have a team of 20, but Day 1, we all agreed on, ‘People would know Jennings County was there. Whether it was sportsmanship or winning a race, we’re going to put us on a map somehow.’”