USA TODAY High School Sports is featuring each of the 12 finalists for the Gatorade Athlete of the Year award during a two-week series leading into the July 15 announcement in Los Angeles. The award is given to the top male and female among the 12 finalists, who won their respective sport’s national player of the year award earlier in the 2013-14 school year. USA TODAY High School Sports administrates the nationwide selection process in collaboration with Gatorade.
Alexa Efraimson’s competitive urge developed before she started running in sixth grade. A childhood filled with sunrises spent traveling to her mother’s triathlons influenced her to strive to play sports at a high level.
Though her parents were collegiate swimmers, Efraimson didn’t take to the water with the same ease.
“It didn’t work for me,” she said. “I enjoyed swimming, but I didn’t find it interesting or fun to swim competitively.”
She preferred soccer instead, even over cross country. In fact, she briefly quit the sport to focus on soccer, but her success on the track in middle school brought her back to cross country.
Three seasons after starting on the varsity team at Camas High (Wash.), Efraimson, senior-to-be, has developed into the fastest prep distance runner in Washington state history — and also one of the fastest in the nation. This past spring, Efraimson was recognized as the 2013-14 Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
Efraimson’s racing career has taken her internationally, too. Last summer she competed at the World Youth Championships in Ukraine and placed third in the 1500-meter race behind Ethiopians Tigist Gashaw and Dawit Seyaum.
She’s even got pro competition under her feet, thanks in part to her father, who championed a Washington Interscholastic Activities Association amendment, “The Alexa Efraimson Rule”, which allows unattached students the chance to compete against professional and college athletes.
Efraimsonrecently proved she was capable of holding her own against pro runners during the 1500-meter race at the adidas Grand Prix in New York City as she ran on the shoulders of Olympian Jenny Simpson.
USA TODAY High School Sports’ Sarah Gearhart asked Efraimson about competing against her pros, how she mentally prepares for races and what her life is like outside of running (hint, it includes sugar-free baking).
Gearhart: You started running in middle school, but didn’t dedicate yourself to the sport until your freshman year of high school. What changed?
Efraimson: Team camaraderie. Sometimes freshmen are excluded from anything that upperclassmen do just because they are younger. The upperclassmen brought me under their wing. The other freshmen and I would be invited to sleepovers and puff paint parties. They’re some of my best friends now. And being able to run not just for myself, but for other people is one of the reason why I fell in love with running and was so passionate about it.
Gearhart: At what point did you realize your ambition of wanting to run professionally in the future?
Efraimson: It wasn’t until this past season, honestly. It’s been a dream for a while, but I didn’t realize it was attainable until I raced against pros and was able to stay in the mix. I’d love to compete in the Olympics, hopefully in the 1500 meters.
Gearhart: Who do you look up to in the pro running circuit?
Efraimson: Jenny Simpson. My coach thinks my running form is comparable to hers. I admire her kick. She’s humble and very calm and controlled, but also very confident on the line.
Gearhart: What excites you about competing against college and pro athletes, and why do you think it’s healthy for you to do so at this level?
Efraimson: College and pro athletes are going to push me in the race, and that excites me because that will hopefully bring me to a pr (personal record). This is healthy from my point of view because I’m able to continue to develop as a runner through better times and new racing environments and atmospheres.
Gearhart: Tell me about a time when you had to mentally dig deep during a race.
Efraimson: Sometimes I think running is more mental than physical. If you want to push through, you have to be able to block things out. Last year during Nike Cross Nationals, I had 300 meters left and was falling back from the front two girls. I looked over and saw my teammates and heard them cheering for me. They were at a section of the course where no one else was, and at that moment I was able to block everything out, and I went all out.
Gearhart: Speaking of blocking things out, I’ve read that you steer clear of social media when you’re about to compete. Why?
Efraimson: The mental aspect of running is so big. I usually try to stay off of social media because if you read someone’s opinion, it can definitely skew how you’ll approach a race.
Gearhart: Social media can be hard to ignore. How do you react to fans asking you to prom on Twitter or Instagram?
Efraimson: It’s definitely interesting and sort of funny, but I don’t try to encourage it (laughs).
Gearhart: How do you like to unwind when you’re not running or turning down date requests?
Efraimson: I don’t live a crazy life — no skydiving or anything like that. I hang out with friends, shop and cook and bake. My life is pretty chill.
Gearhart: Apparently you love to bake “healthy” peanut butter cookies. What’s your secret?
Efraimson: Yeah! They don’t have any added sugar — I use agave instead.
Gearhart: Back to running, what’s a piece of advice you’d like to pass along to younger runners?
Efraimson: Celebrate little wins like a pr. There were a lot of times I got upset because I didn’t get what I wanted in a race. But it’s important to focus on the positive. I’ve been focusing on staying present and not think about what’s going to happen next.
Gearhart: Where do you see the future of women’s running?
Efraimson: Mary Cain is doing a great job setting the stage for Americans and being able to prove that young women are able to compete at the highest level. Right now, Americans like Jenny Simpson are doing a great job. As long as high school athletes have professional runners to look up to the sport will continue to get stronger.