Kaitlyn Weil and Zoe Carr, who will lead the Harrisburg High School cross country team into its first-ever state meet Saturday morning at Oak Hills Golf Center in Jefferson City, share a unique bond, and it goes far beyond their running.
On Sept. 28, 2017, Carr and Weil were traveling to the Moberly Invitational with their coach and three girls from the middle school team. Then tragedy struck. While driving along Route F west of Sturgeon, their small school bus was struck head-on by a truck that crossed the center line.
All five girls survived the accident.
But Brian Simpson, their coach, was killed.
Carr, a cross-country, track and field and basketball athlete, broke her left femur in the accident and underwent surgery on Oct. 29, 2017. In a horrific instant, she went from actively playing three sports to none. She tried to return to track and field last spring, but it didn't go as well as she’d hoped. She didn’t fully heal until late June of this year.
“It’s been a struggle getting back to where I used to be,” Carr said.
Weil suffered only minor physical injuries. But along with the other girls on the bus, she faced some emotional trauma in the months since the accident.
“We’re all still recovering in our own ways, physically and emotionally,” Weil said.
Now, not quite 14 months later, Weil, a senior, and Carr, a junior, find themselves in the state meet again. They've both qualified as individuals in the past.
Weil and Carr originally bonded as members of Harrisburg’s middle school cross-country team, and they've been teammates and friends ever since.
Simpson, the coach who lost his life in the accident, was many things: father, teacher, coach and husband were just a few of them. He left a void impossible to fill, and the Bulldogs’ new coach, Corey Whitaker, knows it.
“I was determined not to try to fill those shoes. Those shoes are still there,” Whitaker said. “They are not going to be filled.”
But Whitaker could try to always be there, to always be available to the runners when they needed to talk; and that, he did. He took this season very seriously, too, and did not try to baby the team.
“In a sense, he didn’t tread lightly. He knew it was big shoes (to fill),” Weil said.
Whitaker said that running has been a great way for Weil, Carr and the rest of the team to heal the pain from the loss of their beloved coach.
“I think running has been a nice way to escape in some way. It has been therapeutic,” Whitaker said. “The world’s crazy around you sometimes, but running is a thing you can control.”
Weil said the team knew it could have qualified for state in previous seasons but didn't manage to get there. To finally do it this season is special.
“This year, having a full team and being able to actually qualify, it's just awesome,” Weil said. “It's just something that we’ve always wanted to do.”
Weil acknowledged that the team’s success has come, in part, from wanting to dedicate this season to their former coach.
“It’s been crazy special from the very beginning of the year. I wanted us to do very well for him and ourselves,” Weil said.
Carr agreed. In every meet she has gone to this year, she said she is always thinking about running for Simpson. That was especially true — and especially poignant — at this year’s Moberly Invitational, almost exactly a year after the accident. Both Carr and Weil set their season bests at the event.
Carr hopes her story can be inspiration for others.
“If I can do this, they can do this,” Carr said.
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.