Lindsey Butler has done it all. The Corning senior has changed her path, and is still doing it all. Butler was on her way to becoming something that has really disappeared in the recent age of specialization in sports. She was your rare three-sport athlete, competing in three different specialties over the course of the school year.
Volleyball. Indoor track. Lacrosse. And it stayed that way, for years.....
"We've always seen her as an indoor track athlete," Corning cross country coach Ray Lawson said. "She's always been a multi-sport athlete with a lot of interests, so she didn't know where she wanted to focus."
Butler had her options, excelling in all three seasons.
"She's just an extraordinary athlete," Lawson said. "Her range of muscle groups and skill level is pretty neat."
Over the course of the past seven months, some may say she has begun to specialize and focus on one sport. But that may be tough to say about Butler at this point as well. Butler has committed to running year round, but the word specialization may not be fair.
Is she a cross country runner?
Is she a hurdler?
Is she an 800-meter runner?
Is she a pentathlete?
Butler's range is a coach's dream. And she, as well as the coaching staff, began realizing those dreams this past spring when she gave up lacrosse to give the spring track season a try. While lacrosse was a sport Butler loved to play, she began to see the writing on the wall with regards to what her best path was for her future.
"My junior year, recruiting for lacrosse wasn't going the way I wanted it to and by the end of indoor track, I realized that running was the best decision for me," said Butler.
Butler qualified for the State Championship indoors each of the past two years, in the 55-meter hurdles as a sophomore and in the 300-meters as a junior. It was a combination of those two disciplines where she first saw her true elite ability. An event many fear or dread, was one that Butler embraced.
"I was excited to do it (the 400-hurdles)," she said. "I think hurdling is just a really cool event."
"She could do anything we put her in," head outdoor track coach Joe Melanson said. "Anything we put her in, she excelled at. We knew she could get some scholarship offers for track if she tried it, but she needed to do what made her happy."
Fortunately for Corning, track began to take a leading role in making her happy. And as she took her sprint speed and combined it with her hurdling ability, she was ranked toward the top of the state with her 62.14 time in the 400-hurdles in early April. However, Butler was not going to make things easy with regards to determining where her skill set fit best on the track.
Having triple jumped almost 34-feet and long jumped almost 17-feet, Butler also had a best of 4-10 in the high jump, to go along with her mid-15-second hurdles time. The pentathlon looked like it might be the way to go. After all, if you have the strength to do the 400-hurdles, one could argue that you could run the 800 as well. According to Lawson, that is definitely true at Corning.
"The way that Joe trains the sprinters, they are always trained well in the fact that they can always move up and run the 800," said Lawson.
So they put it to the test.
"She was doing well (in her first ever pentathlon) and then dropped a 2:18 in the 800 with nobody around," Melanson said. "It was towards the end of the year, and we decided to run her in the open 800 and see how it would go."
Her first pentathlon saw her score over 3100 points. She was now among the state leaders in the 400, 400IH, and the pentathlon. Yet Butler was so talented that the coaching staff continued to search for where she could perform best on the big stage.
"At the next open meet, she ran a 2:14 or 2:15," Melanson said. "She wasn't trained for it or anything. She was still doing sprinting workouts and throws practice here and there."
"(Head indoor) Coach (Andrew) Cartwright and myself looked at the MileSplit rankings and saw she was top five in the 400 hurdles in the state and top ten in the 800 and she hadn't had anybody push her in the 800 yet."
So the coaching staff began to game plan the end of their season, trying to see what would work best for their most diverse athlete at the State Championship.
"We were planning on trying to do the 4x400 and the 4x800, but if we tried to have her do the 400-hurdles, it would kill her," Melanson said, noting that Butler would be on both relays. "We decided about 20 minutes from the state qualifier meeting that we were going to put her in the 800. We called her and made sure she was alright with it and she was on board."
Butler, for her part, was confident with the process, trusting her coaches with making the right decision for her.
"My coaches definitely wanted me to be in charge of the final decision," Butler said. "I wanted to do the event that they thought I could do best in."
So Butler entered Cicero-North Syracuse in June as part of the seeded section in the Championship 800, having run maybe three or four open 800's in her life. Her coaches gave her the strategy that they felt best suited her to win. With her speed and still being a relative novice in the event, just sit on the leaders through the first lap and put herself in position to use her speed and win on the second.
Butler could not have followed the instructions any better. And it led to her winning the race, and seemingly a state title, in a personal best time of 2:10.17. After going out in 66.5, she negative split her second 400 in 63 seconds, only to be nipped by 0.21 seconds out of the second of four heats. Haley Riorden of Rush Henrietta ran a monster personal best and stunned the state, and in particular, Butler and her coaches. Jubilation turned quickly to disappointment.
"It was definitely a learning experience," Butler said. "It wasn't their fault, but my coaches felt awful afterwards with the advice that they gave me."
It still eats at Melanson.
"I said to her after the race, 'that's my fault, that's on me'," Melanson said. "She did exactly what I told her to do."
A week later, Butler placed 10th in the 400-hurdles in a new personal best time of 62.10 at New Balance Nationals in North Carolina. Her versatility at the elite level was still on display.
Her first spring track season was in the books. Now it was time to look forward. At Nationals, the coaches asked her what her plans were for the fall. Butler had decided to give up volleyball and thought about doing tennis, thinking it would be something that was low-key, fun, and give her the opportunity to get in shape for indoor track.
The response when cross country was mentioned?
"She laughed at us for about a month," Lawson said.
Melanson believes Butler has been anti-cross country because of a bad experience at the McQuaid Invitational when she was younger. Lindsey's older sister Katie, now competing at Appalachian State, was a former standout distance runner on the Corning squad. The family convinced young Lindsey to enter the open race at McQuaid one year when there to support Katie.
"I was never into running when I was younger," Butler said. "I think I walked the entire thing."
At some point, something started to make Butler think a bit more about competing in the fall. After going back and forth between the possibilities of volleyball, tennis, and just training to prepare on the side for the track season, she asked Lawson a question.
"Do you think I can win?"
And that was that.
The thought originally was that she could be pretty good, but the thought process was also that this could be a good foundation on the way to breaking 2:10 in the 800.
"She did about 25 miles a week over the summer. She's just one of those kids that comes in at a crazy VO2 max and efficiency and she's competitive too," Lawson said. "She's competitive and tough and that usually means you'll be pretty good at cross country."
"She's the type of kid that doesn't care what other people are doing, she's going to go compete."
The 5K is not a particularly easy jump for an athlete with a handful of 800's under her belt and no distance training. With focuses on the multi-events and the sprints, the verdict was out on how well exactly Butler would handle the significant change in both training and race distance.
She has acclimated quite nicely, despite the new challenges.
"Obviously the mileage each week is different," she said. "And when you are running the 5K, you actually think about your day and think about all the pain that you are in."
But she has adapted to that pain and has consistently learned how to race through that pain as the season has progressed, performing very well when facing some early season tests.
"I thought she could be quite good. I didn't know she would be this good," Lawson said. "You never know how much pain a kid will allow themselves mentally to handle."
"Running a 5K is hard and she has been able to manage that better than I would have thought. It has been exciting to have that kind of talent come out for us."
Besides her talent and competitiveness, it is her personality that the coaching staff credits for enabling Butler to have the wide range of success that she has had.
Melanson described her as care-free and just fun to be around. Lawson agrees, describing her personality as her best attribute as a runner.
"She is so calm before these races. Even at the state meet before the 800. Five minutes before the race, she was just sitting on the turf in Syracuse," Lawson said. "She just stood up and went to the line and did her thing. She just really knows what she needs to do. She is taking it seriously and she is competitive, but she doesn't stress out, even in cross country, which is new to her."
Butler still has a bit of that sprinter mentality, and is bringing it to the cross country course.
"I don't like to over-warm up. It tires me out, so you'll see me sitting on the turf or by the line before a race," she said.
As for her relaxed nature before cross country races, she has a positive outlook.
"I think it is just that I've never been to a course twice," Butler said. "I don't have any expectations for myself yet. I think I just like competing so much that it doesn't really scare me."
As the season progresses, expectations are starting to be set. And it is Butler's performances thus far that are the reason why those expectations are being created.
She's won a few races to start her career, including one at the Jim Smith Invitational at Sunken Meadow State Park, home to this year's State Championship. At such an early season invitational and being new to the sport, Butler's focus was on seeing the course for later in the season and winning the race. She checked both of those boxes.
"That is definitely going to be a tough course," she said. "Those hills are no joke. It is definitely going to push people to their limits. I'm looking forward to go back and run a little bit better. It will be our toughest course of the season."
Butler's breakthrough performance came at the McQuaid Invitational, running 17:18 over the three-mile layout to place fourth in the most competitive race of the day. The performance opened eyes throughout the state. The sprinter was now among the best distance runners in the state. The irony of the location of the breakout was not lost on Butler.
"There was definitely some redemption there," she said with a laugh. "The standards were set pretty low by myself there."
Butler followed that up by placing eighth in 14:46 in the Easterns race at the Manhattan Invitational this past weekend at Van Cortlandt Park, a race that some would say is the most competitive on the East Coast prior to championship season.
She has traveled the state. Seen numerous courses. Faced various challenges. All in the first six weeks of her cross country career. The unknown has become more of a known. And the goals have changed. Pretty good is no longer the expectation.
Lawson said that his primary focus is to keep her healthy and somewhat fresh. He is also thinking long-term.
"Some college program is going to get the benefit of this increased mileage," he said.
Butler has bigger ideas. After having been just on the outside looking in last year, she is looking to possibly be an All-American in an individual event on the track, and also to try to PR every opportunity she has while remaining healthy. As for this season, Nike Nationals is now on the radar. How long has it been on the radar?
"Last week, I was on a long run and asked my coach what my plan was for this season. He said there is a possibility to go to Nationals," she said. "I didn't realize there was a possibility and now that it is, I don't want to pass that up."
Similar to the spring track season, Butler will trust her coaches to put her in the best position possible, something she has the utmost confidence in.
"I think I just feel really lucky at Corning," Butler said. "Even before I became a three season runner, they all just did everything they could so that I could be successful. Even now as I am transitioning to this mid-distance, distance realm, everybody is giving me everything that I can to be successful."