Fayetteville Manlius's Courtney Chapman (pictured above, left) will join Gina Procaccio's team for the fall 2011 campaign. Here is a story about the great accomplishments of the FM program, including recently winning its fifth consecutive Nike Cross Nationals (NXN) title. Chapman has been present for all five of these national titles.
The Revolutionaries: How Fayetteville-Manlius Girls Became America's Team
Marc Bloom takes a deep look at the program which has produced five straight NXN titles
“There’s a certain moment when you realize that you’ve actually just left the planet for a bit and that nobody can touch you. You’re elevated because you’re with a bunch of guys that want to do the same thing as you. And when it works, baby, you’ve got wings.”
–Keith Richards, in his autobiography “Life”
Portland, Dec. 4: For girls’ teams at the 2010 Nike Cross Nationals, it was the best of times and worst of times. It was a time of exultation and a time of bewilderment. It was a season of opportunity and a season of disillusionment. It was the epoch of belief and the epoch of incredulity.
It was Fayetteville-Manlius of New York not only winning its fifth straight girls’ title in record-breaking style—running almost 60 seconds per girl faster than the next two teams while scoring low enough, 27 points, to defeat the entire 22-team field if scored as one—but re-defining what girls can do. Almost four decades after Title IX allowed girls to compete, the Fay-Man girls, guided by their revolutionary coach, Bill Aris, have created a New Girl who, when linked with teammates, is able to run much faster and stronger than her nearest contemporaries.
“They’re regular kids,” said Joe Rosa, the New Jersey star who was 3rd at NXN in 2009 but had to watch this year’s race with an injury. “But they’re doing ridiculous things.”
“Ridiculous” is teen-speak for—what? What is the word, the superlative, for Fay-Man? Is some new language needed, some idiom? Maybe a comparison will have to do for now. They dominate like the Kenyans in the world junior cross-country race. Flying away. Leaving onlookers breathless. Looking so darn good doing it. Looking so cool afterwards. Looking, up close, cleansed, pure, glowing with natural-ness.
That, too, is Fay-Man. Race runner-up Christie Rutledge had the same twinkle in her eye seconds past the finish as I saw at dinner the night before. Maybe even during the race. “When I heard that Kate and Jillian were close,” she said, referring to teammates Kate Sischo and Jillian Fanning. “I had to smile. I couldn’t help it. Then I went back to racing.”
Fay-Man has the Kenyans’ barefoot thing going too. We’ve all seen it by now: F-M’s ritualistic post-race sprints, sans shoes, to reinforce the stripped-down essence that went into the race. It assures that the girls do not forget, even in their moment of glory, who they are and the work that led to excellence. In Portland, posing for pictures, their toes squished the cold mud as winds whipped by. I don’t think they felt a thing.
All five Fay-Man scorers placed ahead of the first girl from runner-up Saratoga Springs of New York. Same as at the New York state meet. The top four Fay-Man scorers placed ahead of all the 3rd-place Saugus girls, rated California’s best team ever.
Ridiculous? When the Fayetteville boys, with a 5:06 miler as a strong third-man, crept up on Arcadia—now that was ridiculous. Don’t think Fayetteville was that far away from sweeping the two races. Someday, that will happen. At NXN, the F-M boys have been 2nd (2004), 3rd (2005), 16th (2008), 9th (2009) and now 2nd again.
How do they do it?
All weekend on the Nike campus, even before the meet, people wondered aloud about the Fay-Man method. At one point, Fort Collins coach Chris Suppes, steward of one of the nation’s top programs with boys and girls teams in the meet (6 appearances, 2 boys and 4 girls, in 7 years), looked at me hard and asked, “How does Fayetteville do it?” It was almost rhetorical. I’m not sure Suppes wanted to know. Could the Fay-Man essence be copied?
Top California coaches like Rene Paragas (Saugus) and Doug Soles (Great Oak) corralled Aris for ideas. He shared what he could, like competing in only a few big meets all fall, which Paragas had picked up on with success. “Once I was able to give up some mid-season glory,” said Paragas, “it helped us. We’ve raced hard only three times and our team is running closer to its potential at the right time.”
But could Bill Aris share himself?
Saugus had nothing to apologize for: five straight state Div. II titles, five straight NXN appearances, four straight top-4 finishes. Afterwards, when I asked Paragas about the race, he said, “Our goal was to try and get 2nd.”
That is what this girls’ championship has become: a race for 2nd. With Fayetteville returning its top four and 6 of 7 for next season, it’s hard to imagine the 2011 race playing out any differently. And 2012, and…
This concession has no precedent. And it could, ironically, become a dangerous precedent. What will the national championship race become when, possibly, every year, one team is considered the winner before the season even gets under way? What will happen to the psyches of athletes racing F-M in any cross-country meet? In the hotel elevator before the meet, one female runner got excited seeing the “Manlius XC Club” banner, snapped some photos and told her teammates, “Now we know where they’re staying.”
These regular girls, as Joe Rosa calls them, inspire awe, envy, curiosity, fear. They may get knocked, as champions will. The web’s anonymity promotes that. What a pity.
Conditions? Rain, cold, wind or mud. Fast or slow. Fayetteville wins.
They win with a tight pack, as with last year’s 17-second spread. They win with, as this year, three girls in the top six and a 65-second spread. They win with injuries to overcome. They win after key runners graduate leaving gaps to fill.
Last year, three scorers who’d been on four championship teams graduated. “This was supposed to be a transitional year,” said Aris. “We had to re-mold the entire group.”
Little bits each day
Since the Aris oeuvre involves something amorphous, psychology—he says he spends most of his time on “emotional development”—there’s no system to mimic or borrow from, no Daniels’ tables to scour; it’s all about you, the coach, and your team culture. If the Aris discovery is learning how to get his runners to “become one,” well, that’s about personality and the subtleties of relationships. It’s about when Aris talks to a girl, looks her in the eye and says… whatever it is he says, with whatever tone of voice and body language inspire the moment.
Like the intonation that took Jillian Fanning from a freshman race winner at the 2009 Manhattan meet at Van Cortlandt Park to varsity runner-up this year behind Foot Locker champion Aisling Cuffe. “I noticed how hard all the girls worked,” Fanning said. “I found I loved working so hard and getting something out of it.”
No matter the season or particular set of athletes, says Aris, “You still have to get the kids completely unified.” How long does it take? “It’s an evolutionary process. It happens in little bits each day. It’s still happening.”
In Portland, the coach who I think was closest to getting a fix on Fayetteville was Tom Rothenberger of 4th-place Jesuit, the hometown favorite and another NXN mainstay. Asked about F-M, he told me, “If you create a running culture of expectation, then each new generation of athletes, even those not especially ‘talented,’ feel it’s the natural process and take ownership of it.”
It’s like what educators always say about the classroom. If you expect a lot from students, they produce. They want to produce. They want to shoot the lights out of a cross-country course, if only someone, like a Bill Aris, will insist they can do it.
“I don’t subscribe to a formal doctrine year after year,” said Aris. “If that makes me a revolutionary, so be it. I look outside the box in everything I do. I look at ideas I might disagree with because that stimulates my thinking. As far as training goes, everyone’s looking for the magic bullet workout. I’ve been asked that a thousand times. There aren’t any. It’s the understanding of how to apply training principles to get the most out of your kids.”
Greater than the sum of its parts
When I sat down to dinner with the team on the eve of the meet, the young ladies were intelligent, charming and poised. They joked about fussing over which color hair ribbons to race in. Gold at the regional, black at nationals.
They also gave off a touch of glamour. It was in the way they carried themselves. They conveyed a real-ness. Some were outgoing, others shy. What they had in common was lock-solid virtuosity. It was the nationals, and everything was okay.
None of the girls had been an age-group star. None started at Fay-Man with big ideas. None was a star now, at least not in her own mind. They were only one thing: together, a team.
It’s one thing to say you run for the team, and not yourself, and another to actually do it. In a nation bathed in artifice, there is not one drop of it at F-M. The enriching authenticity of functioning as a community to create something greater than the sum of its parts is, I think, what young people want in the first place. It’s what we all want. When that works, it forges a spiritual bond. These girls—Christie, Kate, Jillian, Heather, Courtney, etc.—love one another. You don’t let your loved ones down.
Perhaps Aris has not so much discovered a new idea but expertly nurtured an old one. His biblical light, his “Stotan” concept, combining “stoic” and “spartan,” may more easily be lived by the girls than they can readily explain. For Aris, the trinkets of life, the ornamental culture, do not cut it. Keep it simple and pure: hard work and selflessness. When kids “buy in,” transformation occurs and anything can happen.
A 'JV hanger-on' rises up
Though dry on race weekend, Portland was flooded with rain in November and the course was soaked. Meet officials had to pump out water beforehand, but mud would still be the backdrop of the day. Runners taped their shoes. Some lost shoes. There were pile-ups. “It was hard just to stand up,” said Molly McNamara of Red Bank Catholic in New Jersey, the Northeast Regional winner, who placed 25th. One girl from Tatnall of Delaware suffered a leg gash and was taken away to an urgent care facility where she received 25 stitches. She was in good spirits, with a bandage from foot to thigh, at dinner that night.
That’s cross-country—which has always drawn kids who were not the tallest or biggest or swiftest but tried the hardest. That in itself is a talent for it requires so much. Who but the Fayetteville girls embody that most?
The first F-M scorer, Rutledge, who led most of the race, was the 7th girl on the J.V. last year. “I still can’t believe it,” said her mother, Jill. “She’s taught me a lot.”
The second scorer, Katie Sischo, 4th, ran most of the race with her right shoe half-off. The third scorer, Jillian Fanning, a sophomore in 6th, knew nothing about cross-country when she started out as a freshman. The fourth scorer, Heather Martin, 16th, in her second year of cross-country, is a 57-second 400 runner.
The fifth scorer, Courtney Chapman, a member of all five NXN championship teams, placing 29th this year, would get winded walking around the block before coming out for the team in 8th grade (allowed in New York State). Her sister, Alexandra, now running at Bucknell, had been a team member. When Aris invited Courtney to join, her mother, Catherine, said, “Courtney? Are you serious?”
Chapman, headed for Villanova, was the only senior on this year’s squad. At F-M, every fall season has a theme. This time it was, do it for Courtney. She’d given to the team for many years. It was time to give back.
At Portland Meadows, Rutledge went for the lead, got it and held it until 4k, when Rachel Johnson of Plano High in Texas, the South Regional winner headed for Baylor, pulled ahead for the win in 18:19. Rutledge was 15 meters back. The rest of the field was 150 meters back.
How did Rutledge, in one year, transform herself from a J.V. hanger-on to one of the best runners in the country? “I started with 7th grade track and finally it came together,” she told me. “I started to feel a connection with the team. It’s now the main part of my life. Our coach helps me bring out my competitiveness.”
Fayetteville-Manlius, a school of 1,300 students outside Syracuse in central New York, is not alone in unearthing hidden drive. Saratoga Springs got 2nd on the strength of soph Taylor Driscoll’s 35th-place run. Normally Saratoga’s 7th scorer, she was the first of the team’s tight, 18-second pack to finish. “Taylor discovered herself today,” said coach Linda Kranick. For 3rd-place Saugus, senior Danielle Hernando, said coach Paragas, “ran the race of her life.” Normally 4th or 5th girl, Hernando was 3rd scorer in 43rd, a few strides behind Driscoll. “I was so tired,” said Hernando. “I felt nothing but pain.”
You’d think Fayetteville’s Kate Sischo would have been in pain with her shoe hanging off but she dismissed it. “The bottom was folded under,” she said. But how did she run? “I kind of shoved my foot into the ground.” The shoe finally came off over the final hay bales and Sischo ran the last kilometer with one shoe, mud and all. She still managed to hold off Southeast Regional winner Haley Pierce of Tatnall, whose 5th-place run just ahead of Fanning prevented a Fay-Man 1-2-3 team sweep.
Sischo understood what Aris says about learning, that it never stops, that every run and race, every day, brings new thoughts and revelations. When I asked her if she felt that she’d run up to her potential, Sischo said, “I’m never going to say that I’ve fulfilled my potential because I’ll never know if that’s the case.”
When these girls are able to deflect the trite, understand humility and become Stotans, they embrace a disciplined life but one that, perhaps ironically, is the most free of all. They become faithful to their true selves, to what, deep down, they really believe in. Then Aris becomes a kind of missionary and, together, coach and athlete, they achieve something delivered from the Heavens.
Connecting this ascendancy to a guy like Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones’ brilliant, bad-boy guitarist, would seem an impossible leap of faith. But reading his book on NXN weekend I was struck by its tenderness and authenticity. For Richards, early on and even now, it was always about musical purity and art and the synergy of working with comrades to create a “sound.” The sound of the blues—that was where truth, meaning, could be found.
Many of us find our truths through running, a kind of music in itself, and so it rang right in Portland when Aris applied a musical metaphor to what he does. “I try and get into each kid’s mind and heart, and put that into a tapestry, a framework, that will work in a collective sense,” he said. “Let’s go to classical music. You have the great composers of the past. Today’s composers take their music and add to it. In running, our composers are Lydiard, Cerutty, Igloi… I take the tenets of each, add my own innovations and each season arrange it in a suitable format. It’s multi-faceted and time-consuming. People say, ‘Bill, you look tired.’ I am, but it’s a good tired.”
From corporate to cross country
Aris is 55. He runs himself. He’s a vegetarian. He’s tall and lean. He’s subdued in victory, though tears will well in his eyes when giving the girls, or boys, a collective post-race hug. He was trained in business and for many years before coaching was a corporate real estate manager. He’s been coaching at F-M since ’93 while working as a teacher’s aide. He recently retired from the aide position and now coaches full-time: both the Nike-sponsored post-collegiate Stotan Racing Team (with son John) and the high school squad.
“In my corporate job,” he said, “I traveled the country negotiating land sales and learned how to deal with people from all walks of life. I learned how to relate. The same principles apply at F-M. Negotiating, stroking, strategies. Being goal-oriented, trying to create excellence within a group.”
For Aris and his Stotans, it’s not business, it’s personal. “He takes the values that you try as a parent to teach your children and takes that another step,” said Catherine Chapman, Courtney’s mom. “He’s like a third parent.”
At first, her daughter Courtney was not exactly cross-country material. She just didn’t think running was for her. In 8th grade, in 2006, the year of Fayetteville’s first NXN victory, her parents convinced her to run by saying the season would be over in October since she was not on varsity. But Courtney was put on varsity and the sectional meet was coming up. “Just one more week,” said her mom. Then state. “Just one more week.” The state federation. “One more week.” Then nationals. “One more…”
At the federation meet, Fayetteville defeated Hilton, the 2005 NXN champion, and Saratoga, the 2004 NXN champion. In Portland, F-M triumphed by 50 points. Chapman was 5th scorer. There was no turning back now.
“People always ask, ‘What’s the secret of the F-M program?’” said Catherine Chapman. “It’s simple. It’s Bill Aris. He instills the belief that you can achieve these amazing things.”