Kenai Central High School senior Michelle Edwards received her diploma on May 16, but her graduation from the high school ranks came Saturday when she toed the line for the girls 400 meters at the Alaska School Activities Association Track and Field Championships.
Edwards finished fourth in what was one of the most anticipated events of the meet. Dimond's Mary Pearce won the race in a state-record 57.54 seconds, and each of the top four runners crossed the line in under 60 seconds.
And while Edwards' 59.24 seconds wasn't her best time in the 400, she did come back to place third in the 800 with a personal-best time of 2:19.0, then anchored Kenai's 1,600 relay to finish off her high school career.
"I have weird thoughts about graduation," Edwards said before heading off to the state meet last week. "It wasn't as exciting as I thought it would be, so yeah, I think (state track) will be more vivid for me than graduation. It's unpredictable, but with graduation, you know exactly what's going to happen."
While preparations for the state meet and anticipation for the 400 were making Edwards nervous last week -- a good kind of nervous, according to coach Liz Burck -- Edwards is far from having run her last race. She's making plans to attend Central Washington University and run for the Wildcats' NCAA Division II program.
"I'm excited to go off to college by myself," Edwards said. "I was thinking about going Division I, but I thought I wanted to still enjoy running by the time I got done."
The Wildcats have a very good track team, Central Washington is the alma mater of Kenai Central girls basketball coach Jim Beeson and Edwards had been to the school during a summer basketball trip, but the clincher for Edwards was the fact the the Wildcats field a very good team in her favorite sport -- baseball.
"I played Little League, and I'm still trying to get my mom to let me play Big League Softball this summer, but that involves a lot of travel and she wants me to get a job before college," Edwards said.
Edwards' track career started in sixth grade when some friends told her that training for the middle school track team involved runs to the Dairy Queen that used to be on the corner of the Kenai Spur Highway and Main Street Loop, and that there was a meet every Friday.
Edwards, thinking that a meet meant the team would gather for some ice cream, signed right up.
"I was upset because I didn't get any ice cream, but I followed through with cross country," Edwards said.
Edwards said that the glamour events -- the 100 and 200 -- already were filled and she didn't want to run the mile, thus beginning her career in the 400.
"It's a guts and glory race," Edwards said. "I said I'd do it, and I fell in love with it."
Since then, Edwards has grown into the race.
"I'm tall, so my legs are long," Edwards said. "I take long strides, I've got good endurance and I'm competitive -- I hate losing. That helps in those last 50 meters when you're dead."
Edwards has excelled through high school, taking second twice at the state meet and running a personal-best time of 58.1.
Burck said Edwards' success has been a combination of natural talent and hard work.
"It's a little bit of both. She definitely has some natural ability, and most things come easy for her," Burck said. "To run off of sheer ability, she could be good -- but to take it one step beyond, and accomplish what she's accomplished, she's had to work real hard."
Edwards brought the same work ethic to the basketball court, where she started at forward for the Kardinals and was a key player in Kenai's finish at the state 4A championships, scoring a team-high 14 points in the Kardinals' 41-39 win over Bartlett in the fourth-place game.
"We were hoping to do better, but we're from Kenai so we have to do things the hard way," Edwards said of the Kardinals path through the state tournament.
Edwards said her role with the Kardinals this year was pretty straightforward.
"Basically, my coach (Beeson) would tell me to sprint down the court," Edwards said. "Coach would yell, 'Edwards can beat everyone down the court, so look for her.'"
Edwards said her hoop dreams started in elementary school when she was recruited by friends at Mountain View Elementary to participate in an after-school clinic. She continued with Boys and Girls Club basketball in Middle School. Edwards said that once she got to high school she wanted to keep playing basketball so she could stay in shape for track while most of her friends were doing just the opposite -- running track and cross country to get in shape for basketball.
Fitness will continue to be a central part of Edwards' life as she plans to study physical education next year.
"I enjoy knowing how my body works, and not just in sports," Edwards said.
Edwards said her final grade point average at Kenai was in the ballpark of 3.5, and in addition to her athletic activities, she found time to participate in the community service club Interact, served as a peer assistance leader and has been active in her youth group at Our Lady of the Angels church.
Burck said that after working through the ups and downs with Edwards during her four years of high school, she's excited to see what Edwards will accomplish next.
"I don't think she realizes yet what she's capable of doing," Burck said. "It's going to be exciting to see what happens."
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