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Student-Athlete of the Week: Joelle McDonald

Series: Student-Athlete of the Week | Story 16

November 6, 2019

Jocelyn Rowley

Joelle McDonald helped lead the Cougars to their second straight state cross country title on Oct. 26.

Joelle McDonald wasn't expecting a life-changing experience when she joined the Niwot girls cross country team as a freshman, but after helping the Cougars win their second straight team title at the Class 4A state championships on Oct. 26, the senior paid homage to the transformative power of running.

"It started as 'running is what I do for fun'," she said, recalling her four seasons with the program. "Then it became 'running is what I do,' and now it's 'running is what I am,' because it's just become such a strong part of my identity. I can't really separate myself from running anymore."

The Niwot cross country program is going to have a hard time separating itself from McDonald after she graduates, according to head coach Kelly Christensen, who was hired ahead of her freshman season. A mainstay on the Cougars' varsity during her four-year tenure, McDonald overcame Battle Mountain's Lizzy Harding on the final stretch of the dusty state course at the Norris Penrose Event Center to deliver Niwot's first ever state cross country title in 2018.

A year later, she was once again the key piece of the puzzle for the Cougars, with a 13th-place finish that sealed their second consecutive state championship. McDonald also helped the Niwot girls claim the first place title at the 2019 Nike Desert Twilight Festival, a regional meet held in Casa Grande, Ariz. featuring teams from seven western states.

"She's one of my first four-year athletes, because I've never been at a school for four years before," Christensen said. "She's been there every step of the way, and she's really been the one who puts the team on her back, sometimes in the most inglorious positions. She finds the girls in the race, she sets the tone, and she's got a warrior mindset."

A casual racer in middle school, McDonald didn't have high hopes for her high school running career at Niwot, but newly hired Christensen was about to change all of that. Almost immediately, the coach instituted changes to the program's culture, and McDonald soon found herself nodding along to his talk about team chemistry and "running for each other." Three years and three team titles later, McDonald said Christensen's overhaul of Niwot cross country has been "amazing."

"Getting to work with him all four years, seeing where he took the program from where it was to where it is now, I can't believe how far we've come. In my freshman year, we had a pretty good team, but our team dynamic wasn't even close. I would be the only girl sometimes at winter training sessions. Now it's like an army of us."

McDonald credited that new team dynamic for their back-to-back titles, and said that "no one was running for ourselves."

"Once its for yourself it's easier to quit because you'll forgive yourself someday, but you want to be there for your team."

In the classroom, the senior is a top student in Niwot's IB Diploma programme, and has especially enjoyed her history and Spanish classes. She is also president of National Honor Society and co-president of Garden Club. In her spare time, McDonald plays piano and practices Muay Thai, a form of kickboxing that originated in southeast Asia in the 18th century. Though quite different from running, McDonald said learning the combat style gives her an edge against other racers.

"I feel like it's my secret weapon mentally," she said. "You have to get through some really grueling tests to get a black belt and that really helped me to develop more grit."

Unsurprisingly, McDonald hopes to run collegiately, and is currently pursuing recruiting opportunities with Wyoming, Brown, and CU. Wherever she lands, she plans to study policy, economics, environmental studies and eventually go into politics.


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