Editor’s note: Our head coaches have been invited to submit one nominee for the MLT Athlete of the Year from their team from the past school year. The Murray Ledger & Times will open an online poll for the readers to choose one athlete from each school (Calloway High School, Murray High School and Murray State). Keep reading our series and watch for the opportunity to cast your vote.
MURRAY—As a seventh-grader, Murray Ledger & Times Athlete of the Year nominee Ainsley Smith stumbled across her passion on her way home from a speech team practice. That was when she first noticed the cross-country team.
“I saw them running laps around the parking lot, and I thought, ‘Oh. That may be kind of fun.’ So I joined, and I’ve just been doing it ever since,” Smith said.
Soon after that day, Smith began to develop into a hardworking leader for the cross-country team.
Jonathan Grooms, Calloway County Cross Country head coach, said, “She is a team leader. She is our best girl runner. She’s just awesome, dedicated and a hard worker. She comes every day; she’s there. When she’s there, she’s there to work. She’s not there to goof and slack off. She can still have fun, but she’s there to do what she’s gotta do to make herself better, which is good for the team.”
Smith’s hard work has reaped phenomenal results. As a freshman, she placed 13th in the region; as a sophomore, second. Grooms was extremely proud of Smith’s jump between the two years. He talked about her sophomore regional race.
“It was her and a pack of about seven girls that really could have been in that spot. She finished second just by going out there and taking the girls off right off the bat and left them behind and really pushed them.”
This level of improvement is significant for Smith for two reasons.
First of all, females who run cross-country typically get slower as the years go by, not faster. However, Smith has been able to overcome this typical progression through experience.
“I have a realization every year with both cross-country and track,” Smith said. “I finish the season, and then I go into the next saying, ‘Wow. I think I actually know how to run a 5K now. Then, after that season’s over, I start to realize again, ‘Oh. I think I actually know how to run this race now.’ Every year, not only do my times go down, but I get more familiar with that race, and it’s a little easier to run with strategy.”
Her 5K PR for the 2018 season was 21:29. Smith also received the Best Girl Distance Runner and MVP awards that same season.
“I honestly think that she’ll get better and better, which is uncommon with cross country, especially with girls,” Grooms said. “Instead of being one of the ones who’s better when she’s younger, she’s going to continue to excel.”
The second reason is that Smith is not naturally a distance runner.
“She’s gotten better, especially at distance. She’s not naturally a long-distance runner. She is more naturally a middle-distance runner,” Grooms said.
In track, Smith runs the 800, 4X4 and mile. She has placed first in the region for the 800 two years in a row.
“She’s had to transition her mind from racing an 800. I expect her to improve because, really, just in the last year, she’s become a distance runner,” Grooms said. “Being able to race a 5K takes a lot of work. A lot of people can run a 5K, but I mean to race a 5K. She’s gotten physically stronger. She physically looks like what you would call a high-level runner now.”
For Smith to improve her 5K time, she had to put in a lot of effort outside of practice.
“Especially because it’s dead period now, you have to run on your own every day,” Smith said. “Then, once the actual season starts, if you want to be better than everyone else, then you have to do more than everyone else. It’s not a secret.”
The results of Smith’s mindset can be seen clearly in competitions.
Grooms said, “When you see her having success in a race, and you see what she did in practice, you start to put those two together. There’s a dedication there.”
The same dedication can be seen in Smith’s academic commitment.
“It’s the same with school. If you wanna do better than everyone else, you’ve gotta do more than everyone else,” Smith said. “My grades definitely matter a lot to me. My grades are really important because I want to get into a good school and obviously do well after high school and after college.”
Grooms said, “She has a 4.0, and it makes perfect sense. The same work ethic you see on the field matches over to what she does in high school in the classroom. The teachers love her.”
Smith has already accomplished a lot as a two-sport student-athlete but still continues to set goals for the next season.
“For cross-country, it would be great to win the region because the girl that won the region just graduated,” Smith said. “I would like to PR a lot, get out there and run some good times at state, place well at state.”
Grooms thinks this goal is very achievable for Smith, and he believes she can place in the top 25 at state this year.
“I set goals for myself because I know that once you get down to certain times, how critical one second can be. Not only just for myself, but also for younger runners. Just knowing that there are younger people on our team and that they’re going to follow what the older kids are doing. If everyone else stops, they’re gonna wanna stop. It’s not just goals for myself but goals for the rest of the team, too,” Smith said.
Grooms also believes that Smith is a very special type of leader.
“With a lot of programs, you’re dealing with a team of 10 kids; you’re leading 10 kids, but the cross-country team is really one giant group of boys, girls, middle schoolers. So, there are 40-50 kids. It takes a different kind of person to be able to be involved with that many people and try to push and challenge them,” he said.
With a sport as mentally taxing as running, it can be hard at times for Smith and her teammates to be positive. She strives to be the light and motivates everyone to be positive.
“As a person, I’m an old soul, so I’m more mature sometimes,” Smith said. “When you think of a leader on a team, you think of a senior who’s been on the team for so many years and has had a lot of experience, when in reality, I’m just a sophomore that didn’t even start in sixth grade. Even though I’m not a senior and I’m not the oldest, I try to be a leader and someone that the younger athletes can look up to. I always try to include everyone on the team, not just the older kids but the younger kids.”
Grooms is glad to have a runner like Smith on his team.
“She’s just a very good person, and as a coach, I want good people. That’s definitely one of my big things because you can coach someone to make them better through work, but if you just have good people on your team, it just makes everything better.”