You might not have known it, but Columbia has a championship cross country team and no, it’s not the Tigers, Bruins or Kewpies.
It’s the Columbia Colts, a youth cross country and track organization that was created in 1974 by the Columbia Track Club. Until five years ago, the club only had a youth track program, but a youth cross country team was established because competing on a cross country team isn’t an option until high school. It gives young athletes ranging from 3rd through 8th grade from public, private and home school a chance to run and be competitive.
A major contributor to the team has been 11-year-old Nicole Mello. Starting out as a swimmer on the Columbia Swim Club, she became interested in running after hearing her dad’s tales about the 10 marathons and two Ironman competitions he participated in over the years. When she found out about what it took to qualify for the famous Boston Marathon that her dad, Caesar Mello, ran in, she decided that one day she’d like to follow in her dad’s footsteps and run marathons as well.
Her father immediately set out to find an opportunity for his daughter to not just run, but to race. He found out about the Colts through some friends at the Columbia Track Club, which also sponsors the team. After she trained with 50 other young athletes in the annual six-week track session with the club over the summer, Colts coach Dick Hessler saw potential and invited her to run with the cross country team. Starting in early September, she practiced every Wednesday and Sunday for six weeks at Stephens Lake Park and ran in the club’s five meets and championship meet while balancing swimming and homework as well.
She said balancing running with swimming and homework got tiring, but the work paid off. Not only did she run in all the 1 1/2 mile races in her first season, the 5-foot, 79-pound 6th grader won all of them and has an impressive collection of medals and trophies to show for it. At a meet on Sept. 20, she ran her best time: 10 minutes, 4 seconds. The success she had in her first season wasn’t the only positive; she made many new friends as well.
“The meets are a lot of fun; you get to see how good you can be,” Nicole Mello said. “I didn’t know anybody there at first, but now we’re all close friends and it’s cool.”
She wasn’t the only success story either. Facing off against other clubs in the P.A.L. (Private Athletic League) which is made up of 12 small, mostly Catholic school clubs from around the state that have no cross country teams, the Colts’ boys’ and girls’ teams went undefeated and won the championship meet on Oct. 17.
Hessler credited the success, which included a championship trophy that can be seen on display at Tryathletics, to the large pool of talent the team gets from various schools in the area. The victories were a great joy for Hessler and the rest of the coaching staff, which includes several veteran runners from the CTC.
“The amount of medals they won this year was remarkable,” Hessler said. “This was the most successful team I’ve seen in the five years I’ve been with the cross country team.”
Although the regular season meets have been over with for a month, Nicole Mello will be part of a small, elite group of boys and girls from the Colts running in the 10- and 11-year-old age group in the midget division of a junior Olympics meet Saturday. The team will get to travel in style via charter bus, which will also accommodate parents who want to ride along, to Rim Rock Farm, the cross country course at the University of Kansas. The Colts will face off against other young runners from Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri who will showcase their skills on a big stage. Despite her previous success, she can’t help but be a little anxious about the magnitude and size of the race.
“I’m kind of nervous for the big one, but it’ll be a lot of fun,” Nicole Mello said. “I always get the jitters before a race, but once I get going it goes away really quick.”
Hessler has been involved with running for 55 years and said coaching has given him a chance to pass on his knowledge and experience of the sport he loves to the aspiring young athletes.
“Whenever somebody makes a mistake he makes sure to correct it,” Nicole Mello said. “Coach is always there for everybody.”
“I see the little children grow in confidence, absorb the attitudes of the coaches who are pushing them to do their best, working together in a team, and not being afraid to go all out,” Hessler said. “I get to watch many of them get good and go to high school and get better. I work the finish line at the high school state cross country meet and see some of them coming in and go, ‘Hey, I know them.’”
Caesar Mello ran with his daughter in a race for the first time on Oct. 21st, the Homecoming 5K. Nicole Mello beat her dad, running the race in 22 minutes and 4 seconds. The two plan on running in the Jingle Bell 5K in December. After watching his daughter win all her races, he just hopes he can keep pace.
“I hope I can keep up with her because I certainly can’t swim with her anymore,” Caesar Mello said.