Race to a Decision in Valhalla: The Story of Jorgensen and Cain

Running into the Past -- Series Story 2

SamiJ and MaryC and a Decision in Valhalla

Written for MileSplit NY by Perry King


Over the summer, we mentioned a coming honorable mention to our Top 10 Moments of 2014.  That mention can now be released, as Mary Cain, taking 6th at the US 5k Champs in Rhode Island yesterday, marked the end of her final season as a New Yorker.  On that note, we bring to you the origins of Cain, and the athletes who challenged her from her very first time on the track.  Part 2 is incoming Wednesday afternoon.  Enjoy.


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Unlikely Sparring Partners

The battle is on in Valhalla. But there are no Valkyrie riders here looking for dead heroes to sling across their saddles. The heroes here are live, ready to test their limits, strive mano-a-mano, foot-to-foot, and toe-to-toe for 3000 meters over a beautiful spanking new track.

One of the first races is off for the New York Section 1 Class C Championship on the just dedicated facility at Valhalla. The race is featuring a 7 1/2 lap baking-hot Thursday duel between two extraordinary runners. From the long distance away of the shot put pit on the hill above the track, the two runners might be mistaken for identical cousins as they circle the track in a step-for-step tandem motion.

Close up, the huge differences between the two become obvious despite their similar physical builds. They match a free-flying ponytail against a tightly weaved two-foot braid. Their uniforms brandish a sometimes bitter team rivalry as the lane-1 runner wears the svelte navy garb of the Bronxville Broncos versus the more sedate Pawling Tiger white-and-black of the companion attached to her right elbow. Finally, their synchronized strides are being propelled off very different running forms. It is the stretch versus the crazy flip as the feet hit the track.alternate text

In the grand scheme of track seasons and running careers, this moderately paced 3000 meter contest is not particularly momentous. Getting a small-school Class C championship in your local section is cool enough, but the winning time will not be screamingly fast or set the state and national track world abuzz with news about a new American age-group record. The race is being partly preserved for posterity, however, and with a little nod to zaniness it can still be garnished with the legendary aura of The Incredibles flick or maybe a 1960s series about a heroic sea creature with a powerful dolphin tail fin flick.

Elastic Girl in lane 2 has already copped two outdoor S1 Class C championships during her three year high school career so far, and two days from now she will pick up another in her specialty event the 2000m steeplechase, diving below the 7:00 mark and just missing the year's top national time to that point. The eighth-grade Flipper on the inside has an indoors S1 Class C title in the 3000m pocketed from three months back along with relay wins. The year before as a tiny newcomer, the Flipper finished in 15th in the 3000 meters at the NY State Championship, one place ahead of Elastic Girl, though the Tiger steeplechaser would snap back to take a 7th in her hurdle-hopping specialty during the meet's second-day action.

So neither Elastic Girl or the  Flipper are going to push the 3000m pace to extreme levels with more events still to come on their Championship schedules, and they have a kind of unspoken agreement to work together the whole way. They are content to run 7 1/4 laps side-by-side and let the final straightaway sprint be the decider, if any. For any local track fan who happens to be filming the action, the circuits of the runners appear to be deja vu 6 times over except for the presence of the lapped contestants.

And as the two leaders bend around the final turn to unleash their kicks to the finish, it is clear that one of the lapped runners just ahead is about to have a big impact on the race. She is a Bronco runner in the inner lane where her teammate the Flipper has been residing throughout the race. Now as the frontrunners blast toward her, she is going to be a roadblock that will allow Elastic Girl to scoot by her in lane 2 and speed home for the win. Simple, race decided. The decision goes to Elastic Girl.

But no, of course not. This is not boys' high school track or a women's World Juniors meet where the point is to pin a competitor in uncomfortable inside positions so she gets devoured by the race. This is beautiful free-flying girls track, and without hesitation Elastic Girl swings out wider in lane 2 to set up the 100 meter charge home with the Flipper still at her side the whole way. Filming from behind at the top of the straightaway, I have no clue who has won, and it will still take me the better part of this article to remember.

Elastic Girl, a.k.a. Samantha or Sami Jorgensen of Pawling went on to not only pick up the S1 Class C 2000m steeplechase championship that Saturday but a week later would qualify for the NY State Championship in both the 3000 meter and steeplechase events. She completed her Tiger year at States with a 10th in the 3000m and 6th in the steeplechase, taking the small-school Division 2 championship in the latter with her second sub 7:00 steeple. At Nationals in mid June she finished 9th in a race dominated by fellow NY junior Mary Kate Anselmini.

The Flipper, now known worldwide as Mary Cain, would have a less satisfactory end to the 2010 outdoor track season. Again leaning to the 3000m for a state qualifier berth from Section 1, she found herself pitted against not only Jorgensen but also 2009 cross country state champion Megan Young of Nanuet for the two spots for the small schools. She came up short in 3rd place in the tough event, though a day later she almost certainly would have been able to win the 1500 meter qualifier. She would still go to States though as part of a Bronco 4x800m relay that would place 7th and win the Division 2 title.

It would be the last time that Cain would have a setback that would leave her times and accomplishments short of the previous year. Many stunning feats would follow, and 50 months later on July 22, 2014 at the World Junior Championships, she would win the 3000 meters in a time 1 minute and 50 seconds faster than she ran on May 20, 2010.


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Humble Beginnings

The stories for both runners (plus a cameo role for a girl from Cornwall, NY) in the more than four years since that side-by-side tango have moved in different ways that point out the challenges and opportunities for elite women runners today as Jorgensen enters her senior year at the University of North Carolina and Cain goes west as a University of Portland freshman near the track and field mecca of Eugene.

Both runners faced very tough agonizing decisions about their running careers in high school, and for better or worse and with both sacrifices and gains, they made the calls they felt were right for them. What remains unchanged for both of them is a big ready smile born of very smart competitors who long since figured out the right values to carry with them on and off the track.

Before proceeding with the story further, one quick confession. The reason that many of the pictures and videos of Jorgensen and Cain used in this article were captured were that they were running in way too many of the same races in the early years as a certain offspring of mine and her teammates on a Dobbs Ferry squad. Hopefully, straying into some of the images is not too big a burden now for anyone, because options for halfway acceptable quality video frames for visuals are not plentiful. The story for Cain here also ends pretty much after her freshman season with her comet already burning very brightly.

Jorgensen and Cain sprang up out of the small school running world of a NY Section 1 region that includes all or parts of Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, and Dutchess counties straddling the Hudson River north of New York City. On the girls side the area has recently become a hotbed of running action, as the local runners have won both five team and individual state cross country championships in the last five years and top graduates such as Arlington HS's Rachel Sorna and Mamaroneck's Anima Banks have pushed on with some success in middle and long distance events at Cornell and Duke.

The competition with runners from other nearby NY sections such as Cornwall's Aisling Cuffe (Stanford), Roslyn's Emily Lipari (Villanova), North Shore's Samantha Nadel (Georgetown) and Brianna Nerud (Syracuse), and Monroe-Woodbury's Megan Patrignelli (Oregon) also provided a steady tough-love diet of hard competition, and that's without even bringing in the runners from upstate national powerhouses Fayetteville-Manlius and Saratoga..

Cain's tightly packed one-square-mile Bronxville community has a very different complexion from Jorgensen's rural Pawling area. Living in one of the richest towns in the US that is perched on New York City border just north of the Bronx, Bronco runners have pretty easy access to two of the country's top running venues, the 5-mile-distant Van Cortlandt Park and 11-mile-distant Armory Track arena. 

Jorgensen's Pawling is an hour north near the Connecticut border in an area replete with dairy farms and nice running trails fit for a state cross country championship, which the town hosted in the fall of 2010. Pawling has no track facilities, however, and Bronxville at least has a track that can hold events like the 2009 Section 1 Class C meet even if it is about 20 meters short of 400 in the inside lane due to space restrictions when it was expanded from the original four lanes. Both of these small towns are fertile grounds for top runners.


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From Field Hockey To Track and Field

But there are also impediments to good running, at least the kind we like to talk about in MileSplit articles. That is especially true for field hockey star Sami, daughter of Van and Gina Jorgensen and big sister to brothers Matthew and Luke, two and five years younger respectively. Somewhere early on she picked up a big stick and never put it down as Pawling's fast and furious midfielder, a position that supposedly requires the great stamina that Jorgensen had in abundance for a moderately successful field hockey team.

A noted overachiever in school and on the athletic fields, Jorgensen started racking up the trophies in her early HS career and eventually earned a Golden Dozen award as one of the 12 best field hockey players in NY. And being the leader of her sticksters teammates early on, she had an obligation she could not shuck off. The decision to stick with field hockey was one made for the love of a salternate textport, but it would never be anything other than one she describes as incredibly diificult for Jorgensen.

Jorgensen's dad had been a runner back in his day, but it was younger brother Matt who inspired Sami to really devote some time to running. Seeing how hard Matt was working to make the XC team as a 7th grader, she decided she would put in the effort to become a top runner. Running was not a totally natural activity for her, however, and she would always feel nervous on the starting line and feel like throwing up, an activiity which at at the the Armory at least is catered to with a special receptacle near the start-finish line that has earned various epithets. Coincidentally, the "run until you chuck" feeling was one that Mary Cain would never experience, but that she wished she could.

Kept off the XC trails in the fall by this "other" sport which also spilled over into the ice version of hockey in the winter, Jorgensen fit her running enthusiasms in where she could, starting with an unbeatable streak in modified track as an 8th grader and on to the varsity level the next year. As a freshman she did well enough to qualify for States for the small-school spots in both the 3000m run and the 2000m steeplechase. She became known for her bendy, loosed-limbed warm-up routines that seemed sure to include a backcurling finger-to-heel tap at any moment. But using  her springy focused warm-up bounds to fight off prerace jitters, she also seemed to exude a fiercely competitive confidence that few other runners could begin to match.

Jorgensen's coaches were modified and assistant track and girls XC coach Adam Muroski and head track and XC coach Jack Power who had been building a program from the fall of 2004 that had enjoyed good success, especially on the boys side where through 2009 the Tigers would make four appearances at the state championship and have individual champs with Colby Delbene and Brandon Freyer.

Quickly recognizing a unique talent in their midst but also one who had a lot of commitments, the coaches tried to work around Jorgensen's schedule to give her some year-round running competition. Though her field hockey postseasons kept extending later into the fall, Jorgensen still got in some late season XC training in her junior and senior years and finished well in the NXN New York regionals and also picked up a 1st in the sophomore race at the Footlocker Northeast Regionals with a 124 Tully Runner speed rating off of no real distance training..

Though Jorgensen would have some successes for the training-challenged winter track program at resource-poor Pawling, it was in the spring that she really shone as the top new runner, starting a record streak in her freshman year that would culminate in four straight berths at the State championships in both the 3000 meter race and 2000m steeplechase and the top place among small-school Division 2 steeplers in her junior and senior years.

A workhorse for a track team that had nowhere near the depth of talent that Bronxville had, Jorgensen got used to competing in three to four events at most meets, running the grueling 1500m-3000m combination often in local meets and sometimes throwing in the high jump plus the obligatory 4x800m relay anchor. Outdoors in the County championships she would pair a steeplechase win with a stint in one of the other distance events, and postseason was always the time for the steeplechase and 3000m double.

Learning early on that leaping over barriers and splashing through pools suited her very well, she also noted that many other top runners shied away from the grueling event. For Jorgensen, the steeplechase was "an incredible test of grit." and she valued it especially because it always kept her focused so she wouldn't crash any of the barriers. A tumble at her first States meet cost her a medal and made her more determined to master the event. A great model from the area for Jorgensen during her freshman and sophomore seasons was Suffern's star distance runner Shelby Greany who broke the sectional records, set a national high school record in May 2009 and captured the state title before winning the USATF Juniors championship and advancing to the finals of the World Juniors as a Providence College freshman in 2010.

Jorgensen also headed to the national stage, starting with the 9th in the steeples at Nike Outdoor Nationals in 2010. The final trumpet blast on her HS career as a senior was a 5th place and an All-American award in 2011 after she got up from a stumble in the pool to run down two girls ahead of her for the final AA spot.

Sami definitely received all of her family's share of hurdle-bounding steeplechasing genes, as younger brother Matt would make a game effort in the event but his horizontal straddling method of clearing the barriers never really caught on. But Matty-dog -- many time winner of the The Size of the Fight in the Dog award for Section 1 runners of small size and big hearts -- would eventually one-up big sis as a senior captain by leading his Tiger team to its first State XC championship in 2012 while finishing in 3rd place and later capping the year off with a 2nd among Division 2 runners in the 3200m at outdoor States.

Unlike her brother, Sami never had much time time in XC running to boost herself into the winter and spring seasons, and her loyalty to field hockey was something that had been tested especially hard in the fall of 2009 as a junior when XC season preview guides stated that a strong Pawling squad led by Jorgensen's track relay teammate Caitlin Jelinek appeared able to offer a big challenge to Bronxville's 12-year reign as Section 1's top girls' small school, But that challenge was real only if Sami Jorgensen was running XC. The quandary was all the deeper because of the emergence of a precocious new rival at Bronxville the previous spring.