Rachel Sanford: for the love of running
BY MIKE FIELDS
LOUISVILLE — Rachel Sanford was never chasing glory or records or celebrity when she was winning an unprecedented five consecutive KHSAA state cross country titles, a remarkable streak of success that began in 1993 when she was only 10 years old.
“I was just out there having fun, enjoying running and being with my family,” she said recently. “It was never really about the winning. It was about the overall experience.”
Now, some 20 years later, Rachel Sanford DeJarnatt can better understand the buzz she created as a wunderkind. On a restaurant patio near her home in Louisville, where she lives with her husband Dee and their two children (2-year-old Andrew and 6-week old Eleanor), Rachel sifted through a box of newspaper and magazine clippings and photos from her time as a childhood champion.
She remembers being upset the day she had to interrupt her recess at Southern Elementary in Somerset to have her picture taken for Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” after she won her first state cross country title for Southwestern High School.
“I didn’t quite understand, as a fifth-grader, the magnitude of it all,” she said. “That first year I won, I think it was a little bit of a shock to everybody.
“I had finished second in the regional, which was my best race so far that year. I don’t think it was expected I’d win (the state) when I was that young. My mom always laughs and says she was at the finish line cheering, ‘That’s my baby!'”
Rachel says she inherited her love for running.
Her mom, Joan, was a standout sprinter growing up in the Chicago area. Her dad, Ben, was a distance runner in military school and a long-time volunteer high school coach.
“I think there’s certainly something in the genes,” Rachel said, smiling.
Her older sisters, Michelle and Moriah, were on the high school cross country and track teams at Pulaski County when Rachel was first smitten by the running bug.
The story goes that Michelle and her Pulaski County teammates were going jogging one afternoon when Rachel asked if she could join them.
“I was a little sister and wanted to tag along, and they obliged,” she said. “I think they were a bit shocked that I was able to keep up. But it was easy for me at that point. I was young, and I was excited to be with the older kids.”
It was the start of something special. Rachel became teammates with Michelle and Moriah, and the next year Rachel’s twin sister Rebecca joined them. And serving as assistant coach was their dad. (Her brother Joel, a year older, started running later.)
“We had a wonderful team family,” Rachel said. “I don’t think anybody had a problem with me being so young and doing well. We were very close and supported each other. Everybody seemed to welcome me.
“One of the things I love about running is it’s a team sport and an individual sport. You do the best you can individually, but you’re more focused on the team doing well.”
Rachel’s sisters were always rooting for her.
“I used to get angry with Moriah because she’d be more worried about how I was running than how she was doing herself,” Rachel said.
During Rachel’s state title streak, Rebecca was quoted as saying she could “never imagine” beating her twin. “It would just feel weird. I think if we were neck and neck, I would let her win. I really want her to win as many state championships as she can.”
Rachel won a bunch, winning the 3A title four years in a row at Southwestern, and capturing a fifth as a freshman at Pulaski County.
“As I got older, it got more difficult,” she said. “There was a lot more self-pressure to continue to win. When I was younger, I didn’t feel that. It was all just so natural, so fun.”
She said she first really felt that pressure her freshman year, but she managed to work through it and win her fifth title.
“Then my sophomore year, people were running faster and I wasn’t progressing as much as I thought I should,” she said.
At the state meet, Sara Graybill of Daviess County won the 3A championship, beating Rachel, the runner-up, by 23 seconds.
“There may have been a little relief after that,” Rachel said of having the burden of the streak lifted. “I also remember reading an article that said, ‘Sanford dethroned’. That may have been when it really hit me that people were really invested in what I was doing. It was all on a much bigger scale than I had realized.”
That winter, Rachel’s world changed forever when her dad died. “Everything certainly got more challenging after that,” she said. “And running wasn’t the same without him. He had always been there.”
The state meet was lengthened from 4K to 5K that fall, and she finished fourth. She closed out her high school cross-country career with a third-place finish her senior year, although she and Rebecca helped Pulaski County take the team title (just as they did as freshmen, along with Moriah).
(Rachel also won state track titles in the 3,200 meters, and one of her sweetest memories is teaming with Rebecca, Moriah and Natalie Scruggs to win a state title in the 3,200 relay).
Rachel and Rebecca went on to run cross country and track at Western Kentucky, but Rachel’s career was hampered by injuries.
She never recaptured her championship form, but she never lost her love for running.
She still has some problems with her shins, but she’s getting an urge to start running again after giving birth this summer.
“When I was pregnant, I’d see people running and I’d get that urge again,” she said.
“Running really is an amazing sport. I’m thankful I had the gift and was able to do what I did. I have great memories of it being family time, and I hope to share it with my kids when they get older. I’d love for them to be part of it.”
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