Photos provided by Gary Mui, Harold Turk, Mae Kellert
McKinley Fielding is viewed as an international woman of mystery by many in the Northeast and, to an extent, there is some truth to that notion. Fielding, after all, arrived in New York with no fanfare after dominating European Junior competition while living in Germany the past few years. And the United States she arrived back in, looks nothing like the one she had left back in grade school.
Throw in the fact that Carthage High, the school she currently attends, isn't running cross country this fall nor attending school in person and the picture of who Fielding is, both on and off the course, remains a bit blurry. So when she shows up at club races, the way she has this fall, and continues to come away with top-five finishes, people will naturally ask, "Who's that girl?"
The truth is, however, that there really isn't anything all that mysterious about Fielding. She's simply the new kid in town, a scenario that plays out at hundreds of high schools across the country every year. While her story is a bit different because she transferred from a high school in Germany in a time when global activities have been altered by the coronavirus, it doesn't change the fact that she is simply a 17-year-old who loves to run and hopes that one day her legs will carry her all the way to Division I scholarship.
Fielding and her family live in the shadow of Fort Drum, just northeast of Watertown. Her dad, Lieutenant Colonel Ben Fielding, took command of the 214th Infantry Battalion earlier this year and as a result the family moved from Stuttgart, Germany where McKinley Fielding had spent much of her life.
While she admits that the move back to the States - she was born in Tennessee and moved to Germany in grade school - hasn't been easy emotionally or in terms of running, the idea of not having success has never crossed McKinley Fielding's mind. She was arguably the best female high school distance runner in Europe, winning the DODEA-Europe Cross Country Championship just about a year ago.
Fielding went undefeated as a junior last fall, capping her season with the European Championship, a race that she finished in 18:40.47 [for 3.1 miles], which established a new course record. So when COVID-19 took away her first fall season in the United States - she's repeating her junior year - she lost the chance to compete, make some new friends and prove herself in the Western Hemisphere.
"I'm handling it the best I can," said Fielding, who prefers to run long distances on a track rather than a cross country course. "Everybody knew who I was in Europe because I had been there so long. They didn't get many good runners and everyone knew my name because it was all over [military newspaper] Stars & Stripes. It's different here because I'm not winning and people don't know who I am. I have to adjust to it because that's what it is now.
"I showed up for my first race in New Jersey [Sept. 19] in [Edison], New Jersey and no one talked to me. No one thought I spoke English."
That first race was the GSTC High School Fall Showcase Meet #1 hosted by the Garden State Track Club. Fielding provided a glimpse of what she could do, finishing third with a personal-best 17:14.34 for 5,000 meters. Reigning New York State champion Brooke Rauber, who has committed to NC State, finished first [16:32.62].
Fielding then placed second in the 12thRock Sports Fall XC Series Race #1 on Sept. 26 in Middletown, finishing the 2.75-mile event in 15:26.2. It was the first time she had run in a 2.75-mile event. She then picked up a fifth-place finish at the second GSTC meet on Oct. 10, running in 17:29.91. It was the first time she had ever run at night and she was unsure of how to prepare throughout the course of the day.
"She was very disappointed in herself after that race," said McKinley's mother, Jolene, who is a retired Army captain. "We had to drive down there and the long drives are daunting. She didn't know what to eat or when so I think she learned a lot of things from that. She gets to bed pretty early every night but I think if she has to run in the evening a bunch more times, she'll figure it out."
Fielding certainly looked as if she figured it out on Oct. 24 when she took first place at the 12th Rock Sports Race #3, finishing the 2.6-mile course in 15:06. She will be running as a member of the Syracuse Chargers club team on Nov. 28 in Montgomery at the Northeast HS Club Championships.
"I thought I would have a normal cross country season and prove myself through that" McKinley Fielding said. "I never thought I'd be running against some of the best runners in the northeast in my first race in America. All these girls I was running against are all over MileSplit and I had never been in an American race before."
"Last year I was winning two and one-mile races and I was lapping people. I had no one chasing me. This is weird not being in front. I'm getting used to it and used to the competition over here and am hopeful of improving over here."
Fielding, like every other runner in the state, is hoping that there will be a winter season. A winter season would also help fill a void left by wrestling. Fielding's father was a wrestler, as is her older brother, so it was natural that she would take to the sport. She had been wrestling for 12 years through last winter but opted to give the sport up to focus on running.
"I really liked it and I loved my teammates," she said. "But the sport is hard and demanding and I got extremely beat up. I knew I couldn't do it if I came here and that I couldn't run in college if I did it here. My body was all bruised up. I like the sport but I knew eventually that I'd have to give it up because it's not what I want to do in college."
"I'm hoping they open indoor track somewhere. This is my first year not wrestling and I just want to keep improving my times and do whatever I can do to race."
Fielding has some hope for the spring though because her cross country season was rescheduled to take place then. But with the extremely unpredictable springtime weather in upstate New York, it's unlikely that season will take place. She's repeating her junior year of high school - she was a junior in Germany last year - and was initially not thrilled about it but now, if everything goes well, she will at least have a senior season to impress college coaches.
Once she does reach college, she hopes to study pre-law while minoring in international relations. Fielding has no desire to join the military like her parents - she does not like moving around - and admits that she could see herself moving back to Germany at some point because she loved it so much there.
"It was devastating [to move]," she said. "I lived in Germany longer than I had lived in any one place. I had incredible friends and I went to middle and high school there. It's where I grew up.
"I'm trying to make the best of it here. It's cold and there is snow and so many cows. There was no snow in Germany. We lived in the middle of Stuttgart, which is kind of like Manhattan. It's one of the biggest cities in Germany." And Fielding was clearly one of the city's biggest stars.
As the Season goes on, Fielding's name recognition begins to grow. Those she's raced against have come to know her story. It's only a matter of time before the rest of the State will as well.