Runner Cathron Birge is a team player in a sport characterized by individual efforts and achievements. Nearly every time she has stepped off the track in her illustrious three-year high school career, Birge, a Lake Braddock senior, has played down her winning performance and instead remarked about her contribution to the team.
Getting Birge to talk about herself is about as difficult as it is for her competition to win against her. She said she was extremely shy when, as a ninth-grader, she laced up her first pair of track shoes.
But word spread -- quickly because she gone on to take seven Virginia state meet titles, a seventh-place finish in the 400 meters in last year's Junior Nationals in Los Angeles and most recently, a third place in the 1985 Junior Nationals for a spot on the Junior National team.
Still, Birge has a team orientation. Her biggest victory: anchoring the Bruins' winning mile relay team last February. Her greatest thrill: that relay victory because "it's so much more fun when the whole team wins." Her most comfortable environment: around her teammates and among her friends here at Camp Varsity.
Which is one reason Birge was spending the first part of the summer in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, tuning up for the Junior National team's week-long West Coast track and field competition.
It was at this camp two years ago, Birge said, that she experienced a turning point in her life. Four months after her first state title in the 500 meters as a freshman, she spent a weekend with a teammate at Camp Varsity.
"My freshman year, I was pretty good then," said Birge, 17, taking a break from her counselor duties at the overnight camp. "But what got me going was this place and (camp owner/director) Coach (Ed) Trim. This place gives me a lot of confidence and Coach Trim has a lot of confidence in me.
"I used to be a shy freshman. When I first came here, I didn't say a word. But it was kind of neat to come here and be accepted by people who didn't even know me.
"When I first came here, I wasn't used to people being so outgoing. The kids walk around here holding hands and nobody thinks anything of it. In Northern Virginia, they would think you're weird. Everyone's sort of close here. It sounds kind of corny but there's a lot of love here.
"Another thing is that Coach Trim influences me a lot. He always encourages me as a runner and he always says 'you're really a good runner but more importantly, you're a good person.' It's important that people see me as more than just a runner."
It's difficult to imagine Birge as anything but a runner. The 5-foot-9, 140-pound all-Met speedster has all but dominated the long sprints in the state of Virginia and the metropolitan area for the past three years. Her times in the 400 and 500 meters were nationally ranked last year. She owns the third-, fourth- and fifth-fastest 500 times ever run by a high school girl. And by clocking a hand-held 53.7 seconds in the 400 a year ago, she became one of a handful of high school girls to have broken 54.
But Birge insists that her performances on the relay team are the most satisfying. "Since I won the 500 freshman year, (winning individual state titles) just didn't seem like a big deal," said Birge, who is representing the United States on the 1,600-meter relay team in two international meets against teams of girls 18-and-under from Japan, Mexico and Canada.
She ran the second leg last weekend in Pullman, Wash., helping the U.S. team to a victorious 3:35.8 in the International Junior Track and Field meet. This weekend she will compete in Vancouver.
"But the mile relay was something I had wanted since freshman year. We wanted it badly. It meant a lot to us.
"I like the relay the most. There's not as much pressure. You're not the only one in the bullpen warming up. You have another three people who are also running."
Birge earned a spot on the Junior National team by finishing third in the 400 in the qualifying meet in 54.65. The top two girls were chosen to compete in the open 400. Birge is the alternate. The top four girls will run the relay.
The qualifying meet last month could prove to be another turning point.
"Maybe it's too early to tell," Birge said. "I was not even expecting to make the team but I got a lot of confidence from that race . . . This trip, I'm not so nervous. This is my first meet that I'm going to alone. Usually a coach or my parents have gone with me."
While she's at camp, Birge receives her workouts from Lake Braddock Coach Andy Tisinger, while Trim, who coached at Lake Braddock when Birge was a freshman, gives her advice and frequently drives her to the Madison High School track about 15 minutes away by car. Both coaches, Birge said, have been instrumental in helping develop her confidence and overcome her shyness.
"Coach Tisinger has given me more responsibility this year," she said. "And also, being a co-captain, I started to be more of a leader this year than in the past. Before, the team was a lot smaller. When the team was smaller, I knew all the kids when we were freshmen and they were the leaders . . . People who've known me for a while say I'm not as shy anymore."
Birge always has been athletic. An avid soccer player while growing up in Northern Virginia, she discovered her talent in track when she recorded a fast 600-yard run for the President's Council on Physical Fitness test in fifth grade. Trim noticed Birge in seventh grade and persuaded her to join the Lake Braddock team two years later.
When she returns from the West Coast, Birge will return to Camp Varsity for several weeks before turning her attention to college applications. She has a 3.85 grade-point average for a ranking of 40 in a class of 740, and she is a member of the National Honor Society.
"Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been without track. Sometimes I think it would be better. But then I would be a shy senior. Track and Camp Varsity have made me more outgoing. Track has definitely had a good impact on my life."