The pass left Miller, an All-Met firmly in second place at the time, “dumbfounded,” as he would later say. But by then, McGorty was racing the clock more than his opponents.
Most of the roughly 300 spectators at the tiny Alexandria facility were on their feet when McGorty finished in a personal-best 8 minutes 55.38 seconds, then the nation’s fastest time in the event this year and fifth all-time for a Virginia high school runner.
“It’s sort of a relief to have done it,” McGorty said of breaking the 9-minute barrier in his signature track event. “Now I can go into a race and know that it’s possible for me to do it again.”
As a senior, McGorty, 18, has already placed second at Foot Locker Cross Country Nationals and again at New Balance Indoor Nationals in the two-mile. Now he enters the final stanza of his high school running career looking for another memorable finish.
The son of two track standouts, the Stanford recruit always expected to play college soccer until he took up cross country as a freshman but has developed into the area’s top distance runner.
“Every time I keep thinking, ‘Okay, this is his best race,’ he’ll pull another one out,” Chantilly Coach Matt Gilchrist said.
McGorty’s continued improvement in a relatively short time focusing exclusively on running has earned him a place in the Northern Region’s rich history of distance athletes, up there with the likes of three-time All-Met Cross Country Athletes of the Year Alan Webb of South Lakes and Sharif Karie of West Springfield.
Webb, still the American record holder in the mile, once signed a pair of shoes for McGorty that the youngster would wear in Chantilly Youth Association races, and this fall, Webb reached out to offer help as a mentor.
With an easy running style, McGorty has claimed every boys’ cross country record in Chantilly history and also set new marks in all track events of 800 meters and longer, indoors and out.
“Sometimes I’m glad I can make it look so smooth,” McGorty said. “There will be times during a race that I’m definitely hurting, and it’s nice that it doesn’t show.”
In the fall, McGorty broke four meet records, posting a personal-best 5K time (14:28) at the Foot Locker South Regional in Charlotte. He won the Northern Region meet at Burke Lake Park and tied Karie for the second-best time ever at the famous course behind Webb.
Indoors, McGorty took state gold in the 1,600 meters last month only to be nipped at the finish in the 3,200 a few hours later by Edison junior Louis Colson, who called him “a legend.”
At Nationals in New York City last month, McGorty helped Chantilly to an all-American sixth-place finish in the 4X1-mile relay and then took silver in the two mile in 9:02.02. Edward Cheserek of New Jersey, a Kenyan who owns the national high school record in the two mile, has beaten McGorty in both his season-ending races so far this year.
“I’ve never seen him have an off-moment. . . when you’re talking about the championship meets,” longtime Lake Braddock Coach Mike Mangan said. “That’s been pretty cool to watch.”
Vicki McGorty says her oldest son was born to run, and she means that he found the perfect outlet to match his physical skills and personality. But some part of Sean’s flair for racing must come quite literally from his genes.
The former Vicki Verinder won the Virginia AAA cross country meet as a senior in 1983 to help Langley to the team title and later captured state gold in the 1,600 meters at both the indoor and outdoor meets.
She met Kevin McGorty, a decathlete who went on to compete at the U.S. Olympic trials in 1988 and 1992, on the track in high school.
However, the couple always wanted Sean McGorty to set his own path. He grew up playing soccer and basketball seriously, competing in Chantilly Youth Association (CYA) track for fun on the weekends starting in second grade.
“They let me figure out for myself if I actually liked it,” McGorty said.
There were early signs of his future running success. Vicki McGorty remembers the soccer parents who would joke that the lanky defender had “a third lung” because of his uncommon endurance.
“He had the highest level of pain tolerance I ever seen for a kid that age,” said Ed Lull, a family friend who still runs the CYA track program. “I think a lot of that came from the soccer.”
At Chantilly, McGorty planned to play basketball in the winter and soccer in the spring, but he had an opening in the fall. Vicki, of course, suggested cross country.
From the start, McGorty flashed potential, emerging as one of the area’s best freshmen even as he continued to balance his responsibilities with Herndon Real Juniors, one of the state’s top club soccer teams.
On Sept. 13, 2009, McGorty ran in borrowed shoes at the Monroe Parker Invitational, winning the freshman race in record time (16:45) and then jumped in the car to make it to a soccer tournament on time.
The balancing act couldn’t continue forever. McGorty opted to run indoor track, passing on basketball tryouts. Then he chose outdoor track over high school soccer. Finally in May 2010 he gave up club soccer, too.
“We always said I’d go sophomore year without soccer, and if I missed it, I would go back,” McGorty said. “I never really looked back, I guess.”
Over the past three years, McGorty has focused on running and taking his career to the next level.
Part of the progress can be attributed to a singular mind-set for improvement that extends off the track and into the classroom where McGorty sports a 4.3 grade point average. He plans to major in business or engineering while on full athletic scholarship at Stanford.
On the bulletin board above the desk in the only bedroom he’s ever known, McGorty keeps a neatly typed list of goals pinned up next to several bible verses and quotes from great runners such as Steve Prefontaine and Sebastian Coe.
Over the years the lists have changed to reflect changing expectations, but those who know him best say he’s reached new heights because of his consistency.
“What’s neat is none of this has gone to his head,” Vicki McGorty said. “He’s still just Sean.”