Wanda Bell used to think she was a sprinter. She wouldn't attempt any distance longer than 800 meters and rarely competed even at that distance. All that changed when her mother took her to Skip Grant and his CYO track club three years ago.
"I felt she was so small she'd be overpowered by stronger sprinters who have matured earlier," Grant said. "She's got better than average speed, but doesn't have the strength or power to run against sprinters on the regional or national level."
Bell had been running with St. Anthony's Parish, as well as other teams, and competed mainly on a local basis. Her mother felt she had the potential to rise to a much higher level.
"We felt if we could take her speed and stretch it out, she'd have more success," Grant said. "And if Wanda grows and becomes a more powerful runner, she's still in the position to drop back down to the sprinting ranks."
Still training with Grant, Bell is a freshman at Georgetown Visitation, competing in her first season of cross country. Her previous training had always been on the track. Thus far, her performances are bearing out Grant's assessment of her talents as a distance runner.
"I like distance better," said Bell, 14. "I feel it's sort of easier. The work isn't easier but in the meets, there aren't as many people to compete against. The competition in high school cross country is much harder. I'd win easily before."
Bell, who is 5-foot- 3/4 and weighs about 90 pounds, has two victories this season. She ran away from the field at the Spingarn Invitational, after holding off two runners from Newark, N.J., and completed the challenging 2.1-mile course in 13:27. Earlier in the season, she won a very hilly Salesianum 5,000 meters in 20:14. There she was voted the outstanding female runner of the meet, but Grant is quick to caution, "There was nobody there as strong as (Erin) Keogh (of Langley) or (Wendy) Neely (of Lake Braddock). She didn't have any challenges of that nature."
Grant said Bell is right on schedule. When he says that he's delighted with her performances this season, it usually accompanies descriptions of the races she's lost. "When she raced at Handley she faced (Tracy) Bowers, who I think was second in the AA Pennsylvania state championships last year, Wanda ran very well. She was surprised how strong Tracy was. It was the first time ever Wanda's run with a girl with that kind of strength and power who could withstand a challenge. It's a lot different than age-group running."
Bell finished second in that race and was fourth at Pallotti behind Neely and Annandale's Aimee Harms and Elizabeth Williams. "It was the same thing at Pallotti," Grant said. "Wanda got out strong and they stayed with her and then gained on her. She made a tactical mistake, but she was able to regroup and be a factor throughout."
Bell also recognizes a progression in her competitive abilities from race to race, saying, "I'm just going step by step and I've progressed. I'm learning how to run and stay in control. Before, I'd be able to run in front all through the race. Now I pace myself. It's easier to do it that way."
"Wanda's greatest asset is her overall athletic ability, her endurance, her natural speed and her stamina," Grant said. "She is an athlete, not a youngster lacking in athletic ability who's been turned into a runner. She probably can do anything athletically. When you gain strength and get the proper tools and are athletic, you will succeed."
In the long run, Grant is hoping his runner will succeed at the highest level of high school cross country competition, the Kinney Nationals, a qualifying series held after the high school season.
"First, we want her to come out of the regionals and then have a shot at finishing in the upper echelon of the nationals," he said. "If you can get to that point, you've become a good runner. If you get in the top 10, you're an exceptional runner."