Last year, Terri Smythers of San Clemente High School was a beginning runner learning to cope with beginning-runner problems.
Smythers had shin splints. Smythers had side aches. Smythers had aching feet.
Now, a year later, Smythers is learning to deal with something many runners--even those with years of experience--never encounter: Victories.
In less than a year, Smythers has gone from being a who's she? to a who's she!?! in the Orange County running arena.
Her ability to run fast with so little experience has placed her under a small spotlight, one that seems to brighten with each race she runs.
But though most South League coaches agree that Smythers is a definite contender for the league title, Smythers isn't nearly as sure about her abilities.
In fact, when asked what she thinks of her sudden success, Smythers said: "I don't know. I don't think I'm anything special. I mean, I don't think people are too scared to run against me or anything."
Maybe they're not scared, but opponents are taking Smythers seriously this season.
"Oh yeah, last year I really didn't notice her," Shannon Liddy, El Toro's top runner, said. "But this summer, she went to the same running camp I went to, so I knew she had really improved. She must have a lot of natural talent. And she can be really tough."
Tough enough to challenge the South Coast League's top runners (all of whom have several years of experience behind them): Liddy, Dana Hills' Regina Schudlich, Capistrano Valley's Traci Skeen and Irvine's Andrea Caminiti, the defending league cross-country champion.
Witness Smythers' race results so far this season:
--At the Woodbridge Invitational on Sept. 10, Smythers placed fifth among 125 runners to lead San Clemente, then unranked in the Southern Section, to victory.
--At a dual meet against Irvine, Smythers led Caminiti by 10 yards through 2 miles. Caminiti, known for a fast, closing kick, closed in with 50 yards to go. Smythers, not usually a great kicker, managed to hang on, winning by 1 second.
--Against Dana Hills, Smythers let Schudlich lead most of way before taking the lead with 400 yards to go. Smythers, a sophomore, defeated Schudlich, a senior, by 3 seconds.
--At the Dana Hills Invitational, Smythers destroyed the field, winning the sophomore girls' race by 52 seconds.
--And, against El Toro, Smythers outran Liddy by 35 seconds to lead San Clemente to a 27-28 victory.
"She doesn't like any one beating her," Brian Scherbart, San Clemente coach, said.
"Beating Caminiti, Schudlich . . . those were great wins for her. She does what she has to to win. She's a lot tougher than she looks."
Smythers signed up for cross-country as a freshman on advice of a friend and now teammate, Noel Landreth. "We heard it was better than (freshman) PE," Smythers said.
Smythers' first race was in the junior-varsity division. She won easily and was moved up to varsity. Despite missing a few weeks of workouts because of shin splits and foot problems, Smythers placed 10th at the league championships.
"At first it was just a gradual improvement, then the more she ran, the stronger she got," Scherbart said. "Last season, (her success) was a huge surprise to me. Now, nothing she does surprises me. Now all I have to do is just convince her that she's really this good."
It may take some doing. But once she's convinced . . .
"It's hard to picture myself as a good runner," she said. "There are so many others that are better. I mean, look at Kira Jorgensen (the nation's top returning cross-country runner from Rancho Buena Vista). She's a great runner.
"I know I have a lot to learn still. Like what should I think about during a race. Most of the time I just think, what would happen if I stopped? Half the time, I really don't know what I'm doing, it just seems to happen."