Niwot's James named Gatorade Girls Track Athlete of the Year
July 1, 2020
Track standout Taylor James didn't get a chance to win any big races for Niwot in 2020, but she still claimed a big prize at season's end. On June 25, the rising senior was named the Colorado Girls Track Athlete of the Year by Gatorade, one of the most exclusive awards in high school athletics.
"She's definitely special," Cougar cross country coach Kelly Christensen said of the talented runner, who was also named ColoradoClass 4A Girls Athlete of the Year in 2019. "Gatorade is a tough award, so for her to get it speaks volumes, not only of her athletic ability, but what she does in the classroom and the leader she is. We're really happy for Taylor. It's a huge honor."
For James, being recognized as Colorado's top runner for 2019-20 is "surreal," not least because her junior season ended before it really began thanks to the pandemic. The team was in Severance for the first meet of 2020 when St. Vrain Valley Schools announced its emergency closure on March 12, and she hasn't been back in a Niwot uniform since.
"It was definitely odd," James said of winning an award for the aborted season. "I was a little surprised when Gatorade announced that they were going to continue honoring athletes, but, at the same time, I think it's important to keep spirits up in a time like this and still recognize athletes from all around the country for their dedication and hard work."
Gatorade has been honoring the top high school athletes in each state since 1986 through its Player/Athlete of the Year program, but faced an unprecedented dilemma over the canceled 2020 spring athletics season. On April 30, the company announced plans to name winners for those sports by evaluating factors other than in-season performance, such as off-season achievements with club teams and previous accomplishments.
James said she is honored to take her place among Niwot's athletic elite. She is the fourth Cougar to receive the Gatorade award, joining Sean Ratliff (baseball, 2005), Nickie Blue (softball, 2012), and Niwot legend Elise Cranny, who received it twice for cross country, first in 2012 and again the next year.
"It's just so exciting to be able to represent Colorado in that way, and my school, and continue the legacy that Elise Cranny left," James said. " ...It's amazing to be placed next to her in a way."
To be sure, James has earned her place on Niwot's athletic Mt. Rushmore. The versatile mid-distance/sprinter has claimed a total of seven state track medals in her short career, including four golds in 2019 (200m, 400m, 800m, and 4×400 relay) as she led the Niwot girls to the Class 4A team title. She has also won two cross country regional titles for the Cougars, and was a key component of Niwot's back-to-back championship teams in that sport.
Between the two seasons, James trains and competes with the REAL Training club team, club team, headed up by Christensen and Niwot head track coach Maurice Henriques. Since 2018, she has participated in a number of high-profile national meets, including the New Balance Nationals and the 2019 Music City Madness event in Memphis, where she not only took first, but also set the fastest 800m time of the year (2:05.83) for all Colorado girls.
Though 2020's main event was canceled, James did see time on the track in January and February with REAL Training for Colorado's unofficial indoor season. She also competed in a few more high-profile events, and in the process, expanded her horizons both on and off the track.
"I was able to jump around a bit for the 2020 indoor season, which was actually a lot of fun," James said. "The highlights were probably Washington, the UW Invite, where I ran the mile, and PR'd there and had a great race. I'm not used to running the mile, so it was fun to see where I'm at in that event. But Iceland was definitely my favorite part of the winter season."
Earlier this year, James was selected by the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation (NSAF) to compete with seven other Americans in the Reykjavík International Games (RIG), held on Feb. 2. There, she won silver in the girls 800m, but that wasn't the only highlight of the trip.
"Competing internationally was a new experience and I hope to be able to do it in the future," she said. "It was amazing to see how focused and just how passionate the athletes and the crowd were. ...Right before the start of the race, there would be dead silence-it was like the calm before the storm-and then all of the sudden, the arena would just explode with noise and everyone clapping in unison."
James and her family stuck around for a few days after the competition, giving her the chance for yet another new experience.
"Iceland is beautiful, and it has a very European vibe to it," she said, adding that it is also very "chilly" in February. "We had about six hours of sunlight a day, from 10 a.m. to about three or four. So it was a lot of walking around at night and enjoying the restaurants at night. We were able to see the Northern Lights a little bit, but it was pretty hazed over in the city."
James was hoping to ride her indoor momentum to another championship season in 2020, but that story had a different ending. Instead, she spent March and April working out alone and missing the rhythm of long-held routines.
"There is a huge difference between training on your own and going to practice every day because you don't have the support," she said. "It was hard to stay motivated, and it's definitely difficult not having the people in your life who are normally there every day supporting you."
She said she was sustained by the same thing that has sustained her throughout her time with the Niwot programs-thoughts of competing with and for her teammates, and standing next to them again on the championship podium. However, 2020 will always have a blank space in her record book and a reminder of what might have been.
"In 2020, I definitely had plans to really enjoy the sport and at the same time really challenge myself and other athletes to run our best at every meet," she said. "I was definitely excited to see where the team and I could go this year. We were all just stoked for the season ahead."