Riverdale Baptist senior Jessica Neal experiences few losses on the track. But even after being dealt a deep, personal loss, she has still managed to emerge as one of Maryland's top distance runners.
Neal, the reigning Amateur Athletic Union champion in the 800 and 1,500 meters, was in the midst of training for cross-country in late August when her mother died from lung cancer she had been fighting all of Neal's life. The loss continues to torment Neal, but running has served as an emotional outlet, especially since her mother was the force behind her athletic achievements.
"I didn't even want to go to practice, but the times that I did go, it helped me," said Neal, who showed up at the school but couldn't run the day her mother died. "I'm still dealing with some issues, but I guess it was better than staying at home."
Neal barely trained for two weeks, which she said hurt her cross-country season, but she still won several meets and has excelled during her first full indoor track season. Riverdale Baptist tends to compete in smaller meets, so Neal often lacks the competition that drives athletes at larger schools. Still, she pushes herself to big-meet times, which she showed in this past weekend's premier Microtel Invitational at Virginia Tech University.
In Saturday's 1,000 meters, she finished fifth, in 3 minutes 1.54 seconds -- second only to winner Sarah Bowman of Fauquier (2:53.19) among D.C.-area runners -- with one of the nation's 15 fastest times this season. The night before, she placed first among D.C. area runners in the 3,200 meters, clocking a third-place time of 11:27.74 -- one of the season's 20 fastest times. She had to pass up the mile because of a sore Achilles' tendon that has bothered her all year.
"Jessica is basically a gift," Riverdale Baptist Coach Yunlay Bridges said. "She works out much more than the [team] workouts. Her mind was made up as a kid what she wanted to do. She's a complete runner, very coachable, pleasant personality. If I say she can't run for some reason, the weather or whatever, she basically comes to tears, saying 'Coach, please let me run.' "
Neal's determination has paid off in her two years at Riverdale Baptist after transferring from Banneker. She helped the Crusaders finish second at last May's 40-school Association of Christian Schools International Championship, winning the 1,600 (5:16) and 3,200 (11:52) and placing runner-up in the 800. Andrew Cox and David Leonard led the boys to the team championship, which remains a goal for Neal, runner Talita Mayo, jumper Robin Gross and sprinter Kelli Holmes this year.
But Neal's determination, which was forged during her mother's illness, has also helped her cope during her grieving.
"I went through a lot of stages growing up. I guess I always knew she was sick, but I didn't understand when I was little," she said. "Then I would have a lot of nightmares, dreaming about the graveyard, just creepy stuff. I knew she was sick, but when she went into the hospital, I just expected her to come out again.
"[Her fight] motivated me. She lived with it since before I was born. She lived with it for 20, 23 years. That says something by itself. She said she prayed to live until I grew up and could take care of myself."
Desmond Dunham knew Neal could take care of herself the first time he saw her two years ago. The coach of the highly regarded D.C. Red Wings club was supervising his Junior Olympic cross-country team at Fort Dupont Park when he saw Neal training alone while her mother watched from the car.
"She's a very determined individual," Dunham said. "For her to be at Fort Dupont on her own, that says a lot. Her drive and determination are phenomenal."
A friend from the family's church told Dunham that Neal was looking for a coach, a role he eagerly accepted after talking to her. Under his guidance, she dropped two minutes from her 3,000 and a minute from her 1,500. In her first Junior Olympics in 2001, she won her age group in the 3,000 (10:13.30) and was runner-up in the 1,500 (4:42.88), finishing ahead of Bowman each time.
"My mother was why [Dunham] started coaching me," Neal said. "She wanted me to do track because it was the one thing that made me happy."
Dunham said Neal has yet to tap the potential that her mother fostered.
"She depended on her mother emotionally, physically, spiritually and mentally, and her mother knew Jessica possessed something special," Dunham said. "Jessica is beginning to realize it's time to dedicate the time and energy her mother gave for her to achieve greatness on and off the track."