Feature: The Realization of the Star in Churchville's Anna Kostarellis

She has seldom found herself in any place other than the lead pack. Over the last several years, Anna Kostarellis (Churchville-Chili) has emerged as one of New York State's most versatile and successful runners on the high school running stage. After all, you cannot spell Kostarellis without "star;" she was destined for greatness from the very beginning. But at one point in time, rather than a starting line pictured in Anna's subsequent athletic plan, there was a midfield line in its place. A soccer-player at heart, Anna's exchange of soccer cleats for running spikes was the consequence of coincidental tardiness.

"I started running cross country in 7th grade when I couldn't try out for the soccer team because of a late physical," the Xavier bound senior explained. "Cross Country was the only sport that would accept late participants because of how few people participated at my school."

It was not long before Anna exhibited a natural ability on the cross-country course and garnered the attention of her fellow peers within the sport.

"I recognized her ability in 7th grade at the [County Championship Meet]. She finished 11th that year, and while not a win, it was a top finish by a girl from Churchville in a while," Churchville-Chili's distance coach Chris Memelo said. "I knew she was a soccer player, so I reached out to [Anna's mom and dad], trying to help them see her ability and maybe help focus her toward our program."

With the support of her high school community and athletic department, Anna transferred her focus from soccer to running; a decision that would prove to change her life for the foreseeable future.

Photo by Ron Kalisinskas

Running is not a sport where success tends to come about overnight. Rather, it evolves over time and becomes most paramount when preparation meets opportunity. For Anna, success was defined towards the tail-end of her sophomore season. She ran well the first portion of that fall cross-country season, but did not perform in a manner notable enough to headline a press release outside of the jurisdiction of her local news publications. It was the latter portion of the season, when a string of quality performances at several highly-touted invitationals and meets, opened the eyes, turned the heads, and perked the ears of a larger audience outside of Section V. Strong showings at the McQuaid Invitational (1st AAA unseeded race), Spartan Invitational (1st), County meet (2nd), Section meet(2nd), and State Meet (6th) would create enough momentum to catapult Anna to a 6th place overall and 4th place individual finish at Nike Regionals, hosted in frigid conditions at Bowdoin Park in Wappinger Falls, New York. Her ticket to Nationals had officially been punched, a testament to her unyielding fortitude and strength as an up-and coming-runner.

"In an instant I went from no one to someone, and for the first time I saw what the elite running community looks like," Anna commented while reflecting on her early days as a high school runner. Section V is not a stranger to runners of an "elite" status. The most notable name to compete in the section is Rush-Henrietta's Sammy Watson, the current High School Girl's 800m record-holder (2:01.78), a record which was set this past February at the 110th Millrose Games in New York City.

"I have been racing Sammy Watson as long as I can remember in 7th grade and beyond," Anna explained. "I think I am so lucky to be able to race against her in this section because not only does she make the whole section look good, but when I show up to big races and she is next to me on the line such as at [New Balance Nationals], it feels like we are back home at Section V and calms any nerves I have."

"To have a runner of [Sammy's] ability in our section makes everyone try that much harder," added Coach Memelo. "With that said, I would say that Anna does not worry too much about who she races, rather she focuses on the race itself -- her against the clock."

Anna's growth as a runner brought a whole new mentality to the coaching staff as well.

"We realized that to help Anna achieve her fullest potential, we had to train her much differently than we had for any runner prior through our program," remarked Coach Memelo. We all worked together to develop a comprehensive yearlong plan to keep her healthy, but try and promote her potential."

Anna's revamped and restructured training strategy typically involved having her perform workouts with the Boy's "A" team during the duration of the indoor and outdoor seasons. Although she could initially handle the increase in intensity and she was able to push herself to limits she previously had not encountered, Anna soon learned that she was not invincible.

The change in workload coupled with inefficiencies with her running form (heal-striking), gave rise to pain which resonated from both her lower tailbone as well as from her tibia. This was an unfortunate recurring theme over the course of Anna's entire junior campaign; the injury would subside for a period of time, only to return and side-line Anna from competition. The few races she did participate in delivered underwhelming results and were accompanied by frustration on Anna's behalf as well as that of the coaching staff. Anna's schedule changed from attending daily practices to attending daily doctors' appointments. To prevent losing her endurance and physical fitness, Anna made use of a plethora of cross-training exercises including but not limited to the stationary bike, aqua-jogging, and an old, cross-country skiing machine donated by a fellow coach. Injuries are just as physically debilitating as they are mentally crippling. Therefore, Anna credits mental exercise via yoga, visualization and relaxation as equally effective practices in dealing with her setbacks. By the start of senior year, a point in time where she was once again healthy, Anna began to recognize herself as a "real athlete" for the very first time. She had not only physically recovered, but she had mentally restored herself as well.

The start to her senior year can be best described as a cautionary tale. Each week Anna met with her coaches to discuss how she was feeling, how workouts were fairing, and what the next progression in her training log would be. Plans were manipulated as needed to prevent over training and over exertion. The freedom and sense of relief that accompanied a pain free return could just as easily become a catalyst for future health complications if abused too early in the process. Anna's training began as a mix of long runs and up tempo pace runs with limited mileage. She and her Churchville-Chili teammates met at local parks to explore upstate New York's myriad of trails which offer the benefit of training on grass and minimize the negative consequences associated with concrete and other hard impact surfaces. As the season advanced, speed and hill workouts entered the practice mix. Anna's senior cross country season was designed in a way that was meant to position her for a fruitful indoor season rather than immediate satisfaction in the short term.

"She has great short speed, but has such great stamina for the 5k," Coach Chris Memelo said.

Anna has excellent versatility which makes her choice of races very flexible. She has run sub 1:40, 2:20, and 3:00 in the 600m, 800m, and 1000m respectively while also running a blistering 4:30 and 10:05 in the 1500m and 3000m. The focal point of the winter indoor season revolved around the 1500m, a distance that propelled Anna to a third-place overall finish at the State meet held at the Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex in Staten Island, New York. Anna followed the State performance with a third-place overall finish in the mile at New Balance Indoor Nationals held at the Armory in Manhattan.

"States was awesome because I had no expectations for myself. There wasn't a certain time I aimed to hit or place, I just wanted to be near the front and see what I could do," Anna recalled.

Anna credits the general atmosphere associated with large meets like States for boosting her performance. In her opinion, racing with girls who have equal or greater ability to her provides an "if they can do it, I can do it" mentality. She started the first two laps in a conservative fashion, in preparation for a robust and aggressive 600m finish. With three laps to go, Anna unleashed her kick and said that she "never looked back from that point." She passed Sophie Ryan of Fayetteville-Manlius and followed in the footsteps of Jessica Lawson (Corning) and Katelyn Tuohy (North Rockland) in route to a bronze medal finish and a Section V 1500m record (previously set by Sammy Watson a week earlier).

"It was such a great experience and one of the best races of my life," Anna recollected. "After catching my breath, I looked up at the scoreboard to see my name and couldn't help but let out a couple tears."

States set the stage for Kostarellis to enter the indoor national's mile as a true contender. The race line-up included the likes of Empire-State phenoms Sammy Watson (Rush-Henrietta) and Caroline Timm (Our Lady of Lourdes). Anna finds that racing in a stacked field takes off the individual pressure she usually experiences in less-stacked races and that the heat becomes more of a group effort bound by camaraderie and the pursuit of new personal bests. Utilizing the same race strategy as she had at states, Anna safely secured yet another third-place finish.

"With a few laps to go, [I] gave everything I had and looked up at the clock to see a 5 second PR," Kostarellis said. "I still think I have more ground to cover."

With a drive to continually improve and not simply be satisfied with present success, the future for Anna Kostarellis appears that it will only shine brighter, like the star in her very name.