It’s difficult to see the road ahead, but that’s just fine for Baldwin Park resident Rafaella Gibbons. She keeps a steady pace along the straightaway of sidewalk in her quiet neighborhood on a cool December night.
Gibbons’ father, Mike, keeps her company on the road beside her, pedaling on his green Giant bike. It’ll be a four-mile run tonight as the pair make their way to Lake Baldwin, where they’ll circle around before heading home.
It’s the offseason for the Winter Park High School freshman, but that won’t stop her from running five to six days a week until her track season starts up in February.
She knows it isn’t easy being one of the most highly touted high school runners in the country, but the Winter Park Wildcat isn’t letting up.
Gibbons took another step toward a bright future ahead of her in November by taking first place at the 4A cross country state championship, both individually and along with her high school team.
She clocked in at 18:05, crossing the finish line first at FSU’s course at Apalachee Regional Park.
Gibbons wasn’t sure how far ahead she was of the second place runner – she never looked back.
Lake Brantley High School junior Sinclaire Johnson finished nearly nine full seconds later.
“It was really important for us to win; it was a big goal for us,” Gibbons said.
“Winning the state championship was a huge deal for me.”
The 14-year-old up-and-comer finished the course with an even faster time at the FSU invitational on Oct. 11, earning a 17:53 time along with her first place victory. Winter Park High School finished second with 107 points overall – just four shy of Bolles High School’s 103-point mark.
Her time at the FSU meet was only three seconds away from the course record.
“It’s pretty cool to know that,” Gibbons told the Observer in October.
“I was kind of nervous for it. It was a really good competition and I just wanted to do well.”
Gibbons also went undefeated this season in the state of Florida, crossing the finish line first in her six races in the Sunshine State.
But Winter Park High School coach Kristin McWilliams already knew the type of runner she was getting when Gibbons stepped on the scene and started her high school career last year.
Gibbons first started running in 6th grade at Glenridge Middle School, joining the school’s track team after growing up as a soccer player. She quickly found success by her 7th grade year, taking the FLYRA Middle School State Cross Country Championship two years in a row and a second place in the 3,000 meter event at the USATF National Junior Olympics.
She also holds the Orange County middle school record for the girls’ 1,600 meter event.
“I’m excited to see what she’ll do in the future,” McWilliams said.
Mike mentored his daughter as a coach through her middle school years, using the book “Daniels’ Running Formula” by running coach Jack Daniels as a guide.
He taught Rafaella that it’s important to create something sustainable, to always run hard in each and every race.
“What I like about Rafaella is she’s consistent,” Mike said. “She’s not an athlete [who does well] if the wind is blowing the right direction, if the temperature is just right and she slept just right.”
“You get many athletes in any sport like that who are up and down. I always encourage her to be a consistent performer.”
Gibbons has seen even more motivation in her teammates, who’ve pushed her to work harder than ever, she said.
“I was more nervous about just winning as a team; that was my main focus,” Gibbons said.
“I have friends that I just want to do good for.”
But Gibbons faces more pressure now than ever before. A state championship as a freshman has made the blinding spotlight grow even hotter.
“I feel like now that I’ve won, I should win for the next three years,” Gibbons said. “That adds a lot more pressure for me.”
“My parents and my coach tell me to just go out there and run.”
It sticks in her mind how young she is and how much of her career still lies ahead of her. Dreams of running in college and competing in the Olympics swirl in the back of her mind, but she’s taking it all one step at a time, she said.
Mike said it’s important for Rafaella to have “amnesia” after each race, to turn the page no matter the result and focus on what’s immediately ahead of her, to escape the psyche that winning, in many cases, has been all that Rafaella has ever known.
“I don’t want to get her or me or anybody else ahead of ourselves,” Mike said.
“I want her to enjoy the journey.”