WINTER GARDEN — It’s moments after the district championship race has concluded, and Emily Headley has just set a new personal record.
Her finish of 18:05.40 — a finish that was more than a minute faster than the runner-up that day — has set a new course record at the cross-country track at West Orange High School, where the race was run Nov. 1 for the Class 4A District 3 Meet. Headley is pleased with the result but certainly not satisfied.
Because, although a new personal record is a sign that the senior runner for the Olympia High School Titans is continuing to improve even as she weighs college scholarship offers from high-profile programs in the ACC and SEC, it still was just a tad short of her longtime goal of eclipsing the 18-minute mark. And Headley is all about her goals.
“I’m feeling pretty good — it’s always a little bittersweet because five seconds away from 17 is a little tough for me to wrap my mind around,” Headley said with a smile. “I always look for being better. I’m happy with what I did today, but I never settle.”
It is that mentality that has allowed Headley, who burst onto the state cross-country stage as a freshman for the Titans, to continue to improve. In 2011, Headley shook up the girls varsity cross-country scene by placing second in the state as a freshman.
Since then, and including her debut season, she has rewritten the record book at Olympia with the fastest seven times in school history. She has the fastest times in program history for a freshman, sophomore, junior and senior.
Also on the track team, she has school records in the 1,600 meters, the 3,200 meters and as a member of the 4x800 meter and 4x1600 meter relay teams.
It has already been a remarkable, memorable career by any standard. And, as evidenced bySaturday’s result, she is somehow still improving four years later.
“For her to continue lowering her time is really a testament to her drive — she’s got incredible drive,” Dean Headley, Emily’s father, said. “She just amazes me. I don’t know how she does it.”
Following her second-place performance at states as a freshman, where she ran an 18:25.39, Headley has placed fourth in states in 2012 and third in the states in 2013. For other runners, finishing in the top five in the state in consecutive years would have been more than satisfactory, but the leader of the girls varsity program at Olympia is confident she can do better.
“My coach, actually, yesterday, he called me a pessimist,” Headley said with a laugh. “I want to be even better, I want to get that first-place finish — I want to be the best.
“I know that sophomore year, (finishing in) fourth place, that’s what really motivated me,” she said.
The competitive fire is something of a family trait.
Her older brother, Michael, ran for the Titans’ boys program during his time at Olympia, Dean Headley was a runner at the varsity level, and Emily’s mom, Jennifer Grabosky, was a college basketball player.
“I think when you come out on the scene and you set a standard early … any athlete knows (that) you start thinking, ‘I’m going to keep doing that or better,’” Grabosky said. “You have to manage that.
“I’m very proud of her as a runner, even more so as a person,” she said. “I’ve seen her mature and how she handles herself, both in running and training and the discipline involved — but also what happens when she doesn’t do so well.”
Somehow, on top of her record-setting career with the Titans, Headley also has compiled a 4.9 weighted GPA while taking several AP-level courses and being involved with several clubs on campus, including the National Honor Society.
She also works two or more days each week as a tutor, with the collective schedule begging the question of when the Olympia senior sleeps.
“I love it — I don’t know what to do with free time,” Headley said. “I don’t know how to handle it.”
Like many talented varsity athletes, Headley thrives in part because of her support system. Her father and mother could be seen at Saturday’s race hustling between different points on the course to cheer her on — as is the case for pretty much all of her races.
Then, there’s Olympia coach Kevin O’Grattan. He is in just his first year as the head coach of the Titans’ program, but has been with the program as an assistant for several seasons.
“(O’Grattan is) literally one of the best people I’ve met in my entire life,” Headley said. “Definitely a role model, definitely someone I strive to be.”
The end is nearing for Headley’s prep career. Following Saturday’s race, she and her mother hurried up to Auburn, Alabama, for an official visit at the SEC school’s campus. She will visit Clemson soon and said her decision will hinge on several factors, including the quality of each school’s engineering program — her chosen major.
In the meantime, there are two meets left in her remarkable career, representing two more chances to break the 18-minute threshold. Her success in these final two races, she believes, will come down to getting back to the simplicity of her mindset as a freshman three years ago.
“Freshman year, I had absolutely no thoughts,” Headley said. “This year, I’m just going to go back to my freshman mindset — no expectations.”
And if she can place first or set a new PR at state?
“It’s what I’ve been dreaming about literally for the past four years,” Headley said with a smile. “It’ll be the greatest day of my life.”