At just 13 years old, La Quinta freshman Akemi Von Scherr has all the normal worries of a newbie to high school.
“School, school stresses me out,” she says.
“It really isn’t,” chides her sister Mikka, a sophomore.
“Yes it is,” Akemi responds.
“Well, for her maybe, ‘cause she’s a little perfectionist,” Mikka clarifies. “She has to have everything perfect, everything the right way.”
But when the younger Von Scherr steps onto the track after school on the inside of lane one, for at least 45 minutes or so, those stresses of being the best disappear. As she strides out in the first 100 meters of a 1,200-meter repeat, she effortlessly glides away from her elder teammates. After half a lap, she already has a 25-meter cushion.
“I like running, ‘cause it can set your mind free,” Akemi said. “You don’t have to worry about anything – not even homework. You can focus on what you want to do.”
On the track and on the cross country courses around southern California this fall, it’s been less about what Von Scherr wants to do and more about what she’s capable of being.
In any race, whether it be a high-pressure invitational or your run-of-the-mill Desert Valley League race, all the freshman wants is to do her best.
And for now, her best makes her the fastest freshman girl in the state.
The two girls, who also have a younger and equally athletic younger sister Emmi, say their love from running takes them back seven years or so, when their dad Mike would run workouts of his own around the track, his daughters as his audience.
“And because we were so hyper, my dad would just take us out here to get our energy out,” Mikka said.
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At the time, there were few sports the trio didn’t like, and running put them in better shape for each one. While Akemi didn’t have a team to compete on until she reached high school – middle school didn’t offer cross country – she kept up running a couple times a week with her dad and sisters, taking every opportunity to run in local 5Ks and even the Palm Springs Tram Road Challenge, where she was the top overall female finisher in 2012 with a time of 37:37. Last fall, she was the third female finisher in 34:53, beating three in the elite division.
But even with those impressive marks, few truly realized the true potential Akemi would bring to the high school cross country scene until this summer – her mother Tammy included.
“I had no idea Akemi was going to excel this much,” she said. “She ran and had fun and was okay at it, but then when she started practicing with the team and coach (Amanda Pierson), it was like ‘Okay, wow!’ It took me by surprise.”
After a few solid meets in early September to get used to competitive running, Akemi took the valley cross country scene by storm, running in the Sweepstakes Race of the Woodbridge Cross Country Classic in Irvine on Sept. 17.
The race, filled with the top talent from around the state while pulling in solid competitors from surrounding states, brought out the best in Akemi. She finished with the 18th-best female time of the weekend in 16:54.
And with that, she earned her place as the fastest freshman cross country runner in the state.
After just half of her first cross country season, Akemi already has coaches around the valley buzzing about her ability and potential, putting her in the conversation as one of the best female runners to come out of the valley in recent memory, along with former La Quinta star Megan Huebner, who now runs at Vanderbilt.
Still, it took Huebner until her senior year to run a faster time at Woodbridge, starting out at 18:28 as a freshman before recording a 16:45 her final time.
That type of consistent improvement can be rare, especially in female cross country runners where youth often dominates. For Akemi, consistency, rather than specific times, is her goal for the rest of the season after running 17:12 in her first DVL race last week at Xavier Prep High School.
“I just want to get better each race and stay consistent,” she said. “I don’t want to go from 17:12 all the way down to 18 minutes. I want to break 17, and I know it’ll be hard, but I think I can do it.”
As fast as she runs, whether in a team workout or invitational race, Akemi said it’s important to turn right around after the finish line and cheer her teammates on, as far behind as they may be.
Though plenty humble, she knows how fast she is, and the closer her teammates can fall in line behind her, the stronger the Blackhawks will be throughout the regular season in hopes of building momentum for a postseason push.
In particular, though, Akemi pushes her older sister who’s adjusted well to no longer being in the spotlight after a solid freshman season that pales in comparison to Akemi’s.
“I know she’s fast, and I’m fast too, but she’s just faster,” Mikka said. “It’s cool, though. At least I can run with someone who’s faster than me.”
Earlier in the season at the Laguna Hills Cross Country Invitational, Mikka said reporters looking to interview her younger sister approached her, assuming that her taller build had to signal the faster Von Scherr sister.
But Akemi sincerely appreciates the support her older sister gives her.
“Everyone always asks her ‘Oh, your little sister beats you?’” Akemi said. “But then she always tells them ‘Well yeah, she’s fast!’”