When a state championship was still yet to cross her mind, Grace Zamudio needed a reason to run.
A four-year distance runner at Hart High, Zamudio had put plenty of her time and effort into track, but after burning the candle at both ends balancing school and sports, Zamudio says she was simply burned out.
"In high school I did think about quitting my junior year and my senior year because it was lot of stress having to deal with school along with a sport and I felt like I wasn't improving as much as other girls were at other schools," says Zamudio, who was recruited out of high school by Coach Eddie Lopez to join the women's cross-country and track programs at Glendale Community College, where she is currently a freshman. "[Coming to] Glendale kind of proved that notion wrong and I'm really glad I stuck with running because I found at Glendale my passion was brought back to life."
Zamudio's rekindled enthusiasm for running has fueled her ascent to the 2012 California Community College Track and Field Championships, which begin tonight a Cerritos College with the running of the 10,000-meter race and continue Saturday.
Seeded No. 1 in the 10K after winning the Southern California title on May 5, Zamudio also qualified for state in the 5K, where she's seeded second, and the 1,500, although she will forgo competing in the latter to focus exclusively on the other two events.
"I was actually quite surprised that I won," Zamudio says of her top effort in the 10K (38 minutes 8.41 seconds) at San Diego Mesa College. "I wasn't really expecting it. I was just hoping to PR, but now that I know there is a chance, I'm not going to lie, I'm kind of nervous. But I'm confident because we've been training so hard the last four or five months. I know whatever happens this weekend, I've put in so much hard work that hopefully it pays off."
Zamudio followed up her win in the 10K with a seventh-place finish in the 1,500 on Saturday at San Diego Mesa, but it was her runner-up finish in the 5K in 18:25.53 that most heavily aided the Vaqueros' best-ever second-place team finish in Southern California and made Zamudio one of the top athletes to watch this weekend at state.
"She's a freshman and she's just accomplishing so much," says sophomore teammate Angela Martinez, who has also qualified for two events on Saturday. "She makes me really proud."
Zamudio was 10 when she found her sport, but not without a little trial and error.
"It was during that phase when your parents are pushing you to choose a sport," Zamudio says. "I tried everything, I tried soccer, I tried figure skating and then finally my friend invited me to a team that the city had and I fell in love with the sport there. It was so much fun and I found that I was kind of good at it, so I stuck with it."
Her Indians tenure provided Zamudio with the foundation for college running, but it wasn't until Zamudio joined Lopez' program she says she began to really get the most out of the sport.
"[High school] was fun, but we never really worked out as hard as we did this past season," Zamudio says. "Training-wise, this is the most intense I've ever worked out and it clearly has made a difference because I've improved since high school and that's exactly what I was hoping for when I did choose to join Glendale track."
Zamudio began her Vaquero career in the fall as part of the cross-country team, where she was a fixture in the top five for a Vaqueros team that won the Southern California title, with Zamudio finishing ninth in that race.
The Vaqueros also captured the state title, but Zamudio failed to score points in the win, finishing a disappointing 37th.
"I ran pretty consistently the first three months of cross-country until the last month," Zamudio says. "I don't know what happened, maybe I peaked too early, but I wasn't running practices as well. I pretty much gave up on my season and the last race I choked and did really bad. I remember I was almost going to cry because it was like I finally get to compete in the state meet and didn't even score points for my team.
"That definitely motivated me during track, even during spring break we were there at 7:30 in the morning practicing and just staying focused from January until where we are now."
Zamudio didn't dwell on falling short at state in cross-country. Instead, it motivated her to work harder and the result is another shot at a state title, or two, in track just months later.
"She's been consistent with her training," Lopez says. "She's a good teammate, she's learned from the sophomores.
"From [cross-country] state on, she started being more motivated, more consistent and putting more miles in."
Zamudio has earned the respect of her teammates, as well, several of whom captured All-American accolades at last year's state meet. Zamudio proved a lot to them with her showings in the 10K and 5K over the past weeks, but had already proved a lot more in preparation for those races.
"She's a very hard worker and I love training with her," Martinez says. "She has so much heart and she just pushes herself. She's very upbeat about everything that she does and I'm very grateful that she's my teammate.
"She lives all the way in Santa Clarita and I do appreciate her driving every day out here — I know it must be a challenge for her. She's just so determined."
Zamudio's track season has been filled with second- and third-place finishes — she also earned a victory in the 1,500 at the Western State Conference Inland meet at Bakersfield College on March 30 — although Zamudio admits to being a little intimidated by her competition early on.
"I know for track in the beginning of the season I was really nervous because the girls at this level are just so competitive and everyone is so talented," Zamudio says. "To go against them once or twice in one day, it's a lot of stress to deal with."
The only tension Zamudio is likely to feel now is the butterflies that come with being a favorite for a state crown. And no matter what happens this weekend, Zamudio has already gained a newfound appreciation for her talents and how far they can take her.
"I really do love the sport now," Zamudio says. "Even though we train twice as hard, and compete with much more competitive people, I would never give it up now.
"The coaching definitely made it more rewarding and especially working with my teammates. We're friends on and off the track and it really makes a difference having supportive people with you when you're competing or when you're not."