On Their Marks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was another impressive performance in Amber Steen's decorated high school career, but only a few would notice.

The Newport Harbor senior was running the 3,200 meters in a Sea View League meet against visiting Laguna Hills in late March, hoping to produce a fast time on that comfortable afternoon.

A fast time, that is, for teammate Lauren Paul.

Steen ran most of the eight-lap race in the middle of the track, a few feet from Paul's right hip, her attention never leaving the freshman's side. She actually backpedaled at times, cheering, hollering, begging, whatever it took to wring a few more seconds from the up-and-coming distance runner.

Steen, the Times' Orange County girls' track athlete of the year, volunteered to be there. Not to demonstrate her team spirit in front of a large crowd, as there weren't many in attendance, but to help her teammate experience the gratification that comes with running a personal best.

"She made sacrifices to help other people succeed," Paul said. "She was really encouraging to people who didn't have as much talent as she did."

Steen had the county's fastest time in both the 1,600 and 3,200 this season, and the second-fastest in the 800. But to really grasp how quickly she ran this season, just compare her times with others across the United States, or those who competed for Orange County high schools over the years.

Steen's fastest time in the 3,200 meters this season, 10 minutes 26.45 seconds, moved her from No. 13 to No. 2 on the county's all-time list, passing runners like Carrie Garritson, a two-time Southern Section Masters champion while at Sunny Hills and Buena Park in the early 1990s.

And that wasn't even Steen's best event.

In the 1,600, she ran a nation-leading time of 4:43.75 while winning a Masters title on May 25. She went from No. 10 to No. 3 on the county list in the 1,600, leaping over the likes of 1992 state champion Shelley Taylor of Edison and settling behind three-time state champion Polly Plumer of University and former Olympian Mary Decker of Orange.

Decker never ran a metric race in high school, but her fastest mile converts to 4:40.4 over 1,600 meters.

"It's amazing just to think about running the same times as these girls," Steen said. "It was a lot of fun and very exciting."

Good things were expected when Steen began her senior track season. She was coming off a superb cross-country campaign, in which she defended her Southern Section Division II title and earned runner of the year.

Against Corona del Mar in the first week of the season, she ran the 3,200 in 10:46.7, then came back three days later and set an Irvine Invitational meet record of 4:55.25 in the 1,600.

Two weeks later at the Meet of Champions Distance Invitational at Azusa Pacific, Steen turned more heads by setting a meet record of 4:50.2 in the four-lap event, defeating Glendale Hoover's Anita Siraki, the defending state champion in the 3,200.

Steen finished second in the 1,600 at the Arcadia Invitational in early April, producing another personal-best time of 4:47.61, then won the girls' invitational 1,500 the following week at the Mt. San Antonio College Invitational. Her time of 4:28.00 was the second fastest in the nation at the time.

She won both distance events at the Orange County Championships in late April, then set a Southern Section meet record a week later in the 3,200 at the Division II preliminaries.

The following week, Steen won Division II titles in the 1,600 and 3,200, giving her five section titles in the last two years in cross-country and track.

Her season crested at the Masters meet May 25 at Cerritos College, where she blew past Siraki in the final straightaway and posted the nation-leading time. She came back a few hours later and finished second in the 3,200, running another lifetime best.

"The highlight of my season, for the most part, was being able to beat who I beat," Steen said. "To beat Anita and to hold the national lead [in the 1,600] for so long, that was exciting."

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