If high school senior Katie McKenna felt the pressure of a frantic first week of school, she wasn’t showing it.
When the 17-year-old sat down at one of the gray tables in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaat.at Kalé commons last week, there was little to suggest she felt the effects of her zero-hour calculus class, or any of the other five courses she began three days earlier.
McKenna — eyes wide with enthusiasm — couldn’t stop smiling as she recounted how she joined the cross country team, and the amount of support and acceptance she’s experienced from it.
“It was a whole new world,” McKenna said of her inaugural season two years ago.
The JDHS girls cross country team will be chasing history this season, hoping to become the first Juneau girls cross country squad to win back-to-back state titles. The leadership and work ethic of McKenna could be one of the key ingredients to making it happen.
“This group has so much positive energy for each other in the forms of respect for each other, but also towards running,” she said. “I see that as wanting to get better in any way they can, having this kind of curiosity and absorbing everything they can to get better as runners.”
It’s the kind of atmosphere the cross country captain was reared in. McKenna said she had a lot of female role models growing up that exemplified what it meant to be a strong woman. Her late mother and former high school teacher, Ali, was passionate “about everything,” and stood up for causes she believed in.
“She was passionate about teaching for sure; she was passionate about the arts, too,” McKenna said. “I just remember always doing art projects after school with my friends. She’s passionate about being a strong woman, too. That was something that really resonated throughout my childhood. But also always being thoughtful and listening to other people too.”
Former JDHS teacher Tonja Moser was a friend of Ali McKenna, and had Katie in her English and writing courses. Moser said she sees strong parallels in the two of them.
“Ali was a fighter for the underdog, she had an ability to see through things and really focus on an end goal and not get caught in the minutia of trying to please everybody and she had a really strong compass, and Katie totally has that,” Moser said. “Katie’s able to transcend her age and be able to see down the line 20 years from now, like here’s where our planet or our town or I need to be heading. She really has an eye for the future.”
That eye for the future has shaped McKenna’s high school experience, from running for (and winning) the office of student body president, to starting up a Students Demand Action group or tutoring other students. Since February, McKenna has spoke on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol in support of gun reform, climate change action and education funding.
“She’s very stable, she’s measured, she’s thoughtful, and she’s really brave,” JDHS co-coach Merry Ellefson said. “She’s been brave whether she’s leading a rally or leading a pack in a running field.”
Accepting and learning from mistakes is one of the best qualities the team has going for it, McKenna said.
“I think that’s what the culture on our team really embodies,” McKenna said. “You see that in our sheer numbers of people on the team. There’s 65-75 people with a huge spread of speeds because it’s that same mentality. It doesn’t really matter if you’re the fastest or the slowest; it’s OK to not be the best.”
The freedom to be herself — both at home and on the team — has served the soon-to-be graduate well.
“I wasn’t shunned for making mistakes or I wasn’t shamed or scolded for making mistakes. So I think that played a big role in building that foundation, but then I think cross country really brought that out,” she said.
Know & Go
What: Capital City Invitational cross country meet
When: Saturday, 11:40 a.m. (girls race) and 12:20 p.m. (boys race)
Where: Sandy Beach
• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.