Let’s set the scene at the finish line of Friday’s NCAA Southeast Regional cross country meet, held at Winthrop: chaos.
Blood, mud and vomit.
Snot, tears and more mud.
Runners collapsed as they plowed across the crowded finish line.
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College seniors bawled into their parents’ necks, the realization they’d run their last race plopped on their shoulders like an anvil.
And there was happiness too, like shocked and elated winners or top-10 finishers (this meet was like the Sweet Sixteen in basketball), and those happy to have survived the six-kilometer race in conditions more apt for Netflix and Campbell’s Soup on the couch, than running (although everyone kept saying this was “great cross country weather!”).
And then there was Olivia Paxton, in the latter category of happiness, beaming as she gathered with her William & Mary teammates following the race. Paxton, the South Pointe High graduate, ran her first two years of college at Winthrop, where her dad, Ben, has been the cross country and track and field coach for years. Olivia had grown up helping her dad and mom, Wendy, paint the lines for cross country meets at Winthrop Farm, had run the circumference of Earth several times over those rolling hills and around Winthrop Lake.
“I raced well, and really just thrived off the energy of being at home,” she said.
Paxton stopped running that course when she transferred to William & Mary this season. She spent an entire college semester in Argentina in 2017, an experience that made her nearly fluent in Spanish and changed her future. Paxton decided to look for an immersive Spanish academic program that could equip her for a career in immigration law. William & Mary offered that, along with an excellent cross country program -- the Tribe annually wins the Colonial Athletic Association title.
“For me to be challenged and just to get away from home a little bit, even though I love being here, I needed to go somewhere else,” Paxton said.
Ben and Wendy Paxton had to be parents first when thinking about Olivia’s future.
“They’re father-daughter, and they compartmentalize, then they’re coach-athlete,” said Wendy Paxton. “It’s interesting to be a fly on the wall and watch them do that.”
Olivia Paxton has slotted right into William & Mary’s young and talented team. She said school is very hard -- classes in her major are taught entirely in Spanish -- but that’s what she wanted.
She also wanted to run in the Southeast Regional at Winthrop Farm. Winthrop was announced as the host last year, so Paxton’s goal was to qualify for the event, and she did, her second career regional.
“I’ve been looking forward to it ever since I left because I still really love Winthrop and Rock Hill, and I love this course,” she said. “A lot of good energy.”
Paxton was happy with her 107th place finish, in the top half of the 245-runner field. She estimated she passed over 100 people in the last two and a half miles. Paxton is just a sophomore and she finished strong Friday in part because of her superior knowledge of the course. But also because every 200 or 300 meters she ran past someone she knew, or someone that yelled her name, shouted at her to keep going, to pass someone else.
“I really wanted to surge whenever I had a family member, or friend or family member of a teammate cheering for me,” said said. “I thought I really did that.”
That’s why, when she crossed the finish line and stiffly walked past other runners doubled over or draped over volunteers’ arms, and the burning subsided slightly and her wind came back, it didn’t take long before she was smiling.