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High School Female Athlete of the Week: Leanna Tamura is Newport Harbor’s fast freshman

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Leanna Tamura of Newport Harbor won the Division 2 freshman race in the Laguna Hills Invitational with a time of 19 minutes 41.3 seconds on Sept. 14.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The most “amazing thing” about Newport Harbor High freshman Leanna Tamura, says girls’ cross-country coach Eric Tweit, is that she only got serious about running two months ago, when the Sailors’ preseason workouts began.

Three races into her prep career, all strictly against other freshmen, she’s already the No. 2 runner for Tweit, a natural who could be on her way to something special.

She offered a glimpse on Sept. 14, running a perfect tactical race to win the Division 2 freshman event at the Laguna Hills Invitational, a performance that outpaced Sailors star Isa Glassen’s and former standout Mia Matsunami’s at the same stage in their development.

“She just has the right mindset,” Tweit said. “She asks the right questions. She’s very detail-oriented. I knew she had some ability, but you never know with a freshman. You don’t know where it’s going to go. What’s really amazing is she ran well on Saturday, but she was even better [on Tuesday] in practice. She’s going to keep getting better.”

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Tamura started pulling away from the pack going downhill about a mile into the three-mile race and finished in 19 minutes 41.3 seconds, more than 13 seconds ahead of second-place Abigail Friedel from Northwood and more than a minute in front of the fourth-place runner.

Tamura’s tactical evolution has been stunning. She started too fast and finished behind the leaders in her debut three weeks ago at the Arcadia Fastback Invitational, then rallied for fourth place after going out too slowly at the Rosemead Invitational two weeks ago.

She plotted, if that’s the right term, Saturday’s run perfectly.

“I don’t try to go out too fast from the start,” Tamura said. “I try to pace myself throughout the race, because it’s a little bit difficult to keep up with everyone if you are going out super-fast at the start. I think I was a little bit into it, and then I realized I was capable of contending for perhaps podium. I was just trying to stick with the group.”

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Edison’s Wylie Cleugh and Newport Harbor’s Leanna Tamura won the Division 2 freshman races on Saturday in the 36th annual Laguna Hills Cross-Country Invitational.

Tamura, an A student, comes from a running family — her dad, Samuel, ran cross-country at Century High, and her mom, Lisa, at Long Beach Poly. She said she ran her first 5K when she was 7 “just for fun. Maybe more for the T-shirt than anything.”

She joined the Ensign Intermediate School cross-country team two years ago.

"[But] I wasn’t taking it very seriously [until] really the start of this summer, where I realized I could go somewhere with it,” she said.

Tweit said he had heard that she was “going to come out for the team, but it wasn’t like she was this stellar junior high kid. She just ran [for Ensign], and we knew that she was interested. That was what got us. She was interested, so we need to get every person that we can. She just responded so well, right from the very first day.”

What she’s done now is much better than what I expected, and we’ve had a lot of good freshmen the last few years, but nobody has run as fast as her this early in the season. She’s way ahead of those freshmen. Does that mean she’s going to keep doing it? If I knew that answer, they’d make me world coach or something like that.
Eric Tweit, Newport Harbor cross-country coach

Tamura, who has a superb closing kick, has leaned on her experience racing mountain bikes the past few years. It’s enabled her to expand her cardiovascular limits, increased her endurance, and provided her the basics for competing in a race.

“I would say that‘s where I learned to work with hills and courses was in my experience with mountain biking, because there’s a lot of hills and strategy involved,” Tamura said. “I think that’s probably where I learned most of my pacing and going out hard after hills, and that kind of a thing.”

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She’s the Sailors’ clear No. 2 to Glassen, a junior, but even Tweit isn’t sure what she’s capable of achieving as a freshman.

“It’s all a brand new experience for her,” Tweit said. “We have two weeks before we have a race [against varsity teams]. She’s been running only in freshman races, because that’s all these early invitationals had. Just to see how she responds to running [against older runners], where she won’t be the best girl, where there’s a lot of other good girls, that’s the next step.”

She runs again at the Dana Hills Invitational on Sept. 28, then gets her first full varsity debut the following weekend at the Central Park Invitational in Huntington Beach. Watch out for Tamura in another year, after she’s built experience on cross-country courses and as a distance runner — and possibly, she says, as a long jumper — for Newport Harbor’s track and field team next spring.

“It’s a learning process,” Tweit explained. “Learning how do I run a race, what do I do. Learning not to go out too fast. That whole learning process that you can only learn by doing. You can’t tell them. They’ve got to go out and experience that race. There’s so much for her to learn, but it’s exciting.

“What she’s done now is much better than what I expected, and we’ve had a lot of good freshmen the last few years, but nobody has run as fast as her this early in the season. She’s way ahead of those freshmen. Does that mean she’s going to keep doing it? If I knew that answer, they’d make me world coach or something like that. But we feel we’re on the right path. It’s all positive. She’s a neat young lady, and it’s going to be exciting to see where she goes.”

Leanna Tamura

Born: April 30, 2005

Hometown: Costa Mesa

Height: 5 feet 4

Sport: Cross-country

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Year: Freshman

Coach: Eric Tweit

Favorite food: Avocado

Favorite movie: “The Martian”

Favorite athletic moment: “The final run [time trial] at Mammoth training. It was an incredible feeling to have accomplished all of the running on the trip. That was when I decided to start taking running more seriously.”

Week in review: Tamura won the Division 2 freshman race at the Laguna Hills Invitational on Sept. 14, pushing ahead about a mile into the race and pulling away to a 13-second victory. Her time of 19:41.3 seconds on the hilly three-mile course was 18th-best among all runners.

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