Last Saturday, Newport Harbor High senior cross-country runner Mia Matsunami made a triumphant return to three-mile racing.
Matsunami won the Division 2 girls’ senior grade-level race at the Laguna Hills Invitational with a time of 19 minutes 1 second.
It had been nearly two years since Matsunami had raced on a three-mile course. The last time she had run competitively was during the track season of her sophomore year.
During her sophomore season, Matsunami won multiple titles, including her first Sunset League individual championship.
In preparation for her junior campaign, Matsunami joined her team at Mammoth Mountain in August 2017 for preseason altitude training.
“We went to Mammoth,” Matsunami said. “I ran well. I got back, and I started noticing a pain. I kind of described it as my hip, and so the first day of school, I will never forget this. We were running a hill workout, and I was like three hills in, and I had to stop.
“I’m not the kind of person that gives up. I’m always going to work hard to get better, and I had to stop.”
Matsunami had suffered a femoral neck stress fracture, an injury that would put her out of commission for nearly her entire junior year.
The recovery required six weeks on crutches, extensive physical therapy and running on an anti-gravity treadmill.
As difficult as it was for Matsunami to have running taken away from her, Sailors girls’ cross-country coach Eric Tweit said it was just as hard to protect Matsunami from herself.
“It wasn’t like, all of the sudden, she’s hurt. ‘I’m not going to run,’ ” Tweit said. “I had to kick her out of a practice one day finally.
“I leave it up to them. I always tell them, ‘You’re the doctor. I don’t know how bad it is.’ With Mia, you have to. If you’re not the doctor, she’ll just keep running.”
Even after the decision to shut her down for the cross-country season, Tweit said that Matsunami would come to the stadium and see how fast she could walk a mile.
A point came when Matsunami came to terms that the cross-country season was lost, but she was still targeting a return for track during the spring. After a few more attempts to get back out there during track, Matsunami realized she was not healing as fast as she had hoped.
Running was a passion of hers, and it had been taken away for an entire school year.
“I was just sidelined still, and at that point, I was like, ‘I just want to quit,’ ” Matsunami said. “I came home from sitting at practice so many days, and I was crying. Just like, ‘I can’t do this anymore. It’s not worth it.’
“I somehow, every single time, convinced myself to get back. I think that’s just what is special about running is that it’s such a cool sport. I don’t know what I would do without it, but there were lots of times that I considered quitting during March and April.”
The anguish of being unable to perform with the rest of her teammates made last Saturday’s win at the Laguna Hills Invitational that much more special.
Through the adversity, Matsunami could always be seen around the team. Unable to run, she showed up to all of the meets, boosting morale and imparting knowledge to the team’s younger members.
“She was always here at practice,” sophomore Isabel Glassen said. “She’s very dedicated and committed here. Even though she couldn’t run with us, she was still leading us.
“I was a freshman, so I didn’t really know how it worked. She still did a really good job of being that leader, even though she wasn’t running. She still kind of told us how the meets go and how everything works. That was a really big help to me.”
Matsunami said that her time on the mend gave her perspective. She gives special attention to the intangibles now, including stretching, strength training and eating right.
“What I’ve realized now as I’ve gotten older is that there are so many other aspects to running besides just lacing up your shoes and going for a run,” Matsunami explained.
Tweit added that he thinks Matsunami has matured into a tougher runner.
“Even though she’s ran a faster time, Saturday, I thought, was the best cross-country race she’s ever ran just because there was a point on that first hill where the girl from [Manhattan Beach] Mira Costa (Brooke Inouye) went by her,” he said. “Other times, Mia has let herself get down a little bit. Instead, she responded and stayed with her.
“This is what I thought we would always see. If she stays healthy, I think there is another 25 or 30 percent where she’s going to get better than where she is at right now.”
Matsunami won the Sunset League final as an individual in her sophomore year, and her winning ways began before that. In 2015, she won a March Madness pool when Duke defeated Wisconsin in the men’s college basketball national championship game.
So what did Matsunami do with the prize money?
“I was what, 14?” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Part of it went towards a phone, a newer iPhone.”
Born: May 11, 2001
Hometown: Newport Beach
Height: 5 feet 5
Weight: 105 pounds
Coach: Eric Tweit
Favorite food: Pasta with a plain tomato sauce
Favorite movie: “The Proposal”
Favorite athletic moment: In her sophomore year, Matsunami won the Sunset League individual title. She completed the course at Central Park in Huntington Beach with a time of 18:00.1.