INDIANAPOLIS – One year ago, Elizabeth Stanhope was running sprints for a home-schooled team. No one in the Indiana track and field community had ever heard of her.
Now? She could win a state championship in the 800 meters, perhaps breaking the state record.
“I think she’s the best distance prospect in the country,” said Courtney Bishop, a Pike High School assistant coach.
It would be only slight exaggeration to suggest the 17-year-old junior is a track version of “The Natural,” a 1952 baseball novel adapted into a 1984 movie starring Robert Redford.
“I’ve been doing this a while. And she’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said Bishop, 52, a former Indiana University runner who once roomed with Olympic 1,500-meter runner Mark Deady.
In Tuesday night’s Pike Sectional, Stanhope backed up her coach’s claim. She set a sectional record in the 800 meters of 2 minutes, 10.16 seconds — fastest in the state this year, No. 11 in the nation and No. 6 in Indiana history.
She ran the first 400 meters in 61.05 and, with no one near her, the second in 69.11.
Asked what she would have thought if told she could be state champ, Stanhope acknowledged she probably would not have believed it.
“I like pushing myself. I like any kind of physical activity, really,” she said.
Coincidentally, Pike replaced one prodigy, Lynna Irby, with another. But while Irby, a 12-time state sprint champion, was a celebrated figure coming into high school, Stanhope was not.
She did come out of nowhere. She said her weekly 25 to 30 miles is about what she logged before enrolling at Pike in January. She lifted weights at the YMCA and is devoted enough to have run on the family’s treadmill at midnight.
But practice on the home-school team was just twice a week, and coaches there urged Stanhope’s parents to provide their daughter something more. Stanhope’s father, Chris, a medical sales service engineer, said home-school athletics are not much more than P.E. class.
“It turns out she had these extraordinary skills. So now what do we do?” he said.
Rules allow home-schooled students to compete for their district’s team if they take one class. Stanhope lives in Pike Township and enrolled in digital applications, a computer class. Otherwise, she is taught at home by her mother, Tonya.
Tonya was once a 400-meter runner at Churubusco, and her husband became a running enthusiast. Chris Stanhope said he regrets not sending Lizzy, as his daughter is usually called, to a high school team earlier.
“This is all new to her. She is very modest and humble,” he said.
The 5-7 Stanhope runs with erect posture and striking fluidity. Bishop said he recognized something “different” as soon as he saw her.
In a culture always looking for the next big thing, Stanhope could be characterized as that. Yet it is not just what she might do. It is what she has already done.
Workouts have been a revelation, such as the day she ran three miles in 5:58, 5:55 and 5:39, with 45 seconds rest between miles. Or the 500 meters she ran in 1:17, hitting 59 seconds through 400. Or sense of pace, staying within a second of targets.
Including sectional, she has set records in five multi-team teams. In the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference meet, she was stride-for-stride with cross-country state runner-up Phoebe Bates of Carmel in the 1,600. Stanhope set a school record of 5:02.14. And she did so without a foundation of much training.
Until Tuesday, the only fresh 800 she had run was a 2:11.77 last month at Edgewood.
“I guess I’m just taking it a week at time,” she said.
She said the best part of transitioning to Pike was being on a team and practicing daily with peers. Other girls have embraced her, even if they can’t keep up with her.
“We’re all shocked every single time we see her run. Like every single time,” freshman Jessica Velez said.
Pike coaches have not spoken to Stanhope much about time goals, emphasizing competition over clock. While she comes across as introverted – “we usually don’t get more than five words at practice out of her,” Bishop said — such restraint is not manifested on the track.
“She seems pretty uninhibited,” said Lance Garvin, another assistant coach.
After the state meet, Stanhope is scheduled to run June 7 in the road Monumental Mile and perhaps June 15-17 in the USA Junior Championships at Bloomington. The latter selects a team for July’s under-20 World Championships at Tampere, Finland.
Bishop is convinced Stanhope can drop her 800 time into the 2:07s. challenging the state meet record of 2:07.91 set by Greentown’s Brittany Neeley in 2013. Neeley lowered that to 2:06.68 at the USA juniors.
“We have no idea what her ceiling is,” Bishop said. “That’s the exciting part about it.”