STAMFORD, Conn. – The best female distance runner in Connecticut history attended Stanford University in the 1980s. And now Westhill High School’s nationally ranked distance star Claire Howlett has made a commitment to attend the California school as well.
Howlett will follow in the footsteps of Greenwich High standout Ceci Hopp, who still holds several league and state records. Howlett is the top-ranked girl in the country at 3,000 meters and second at 1,600 and 3,200 meters.
Considering Howlett’s start, her ascent is amazing. Westhill coach Ed Lane said nothing in Howlett’s early career indicated her potential.
“When she was in middle school, she wasn’t a good athlete,’’ Lane said. “She couldn’t play lacrosse or soccer. She figured she had to do something. When she ran, she ran with really high knees. I called her my prancer. A couple of other coaches, John Ogden and Art Brown, were both telling me, 'This girl is going to be good.' I said they were out of their minds.”
Lane said part of his skepticism was because Howlett had little athletic ability. “We had other runners who were just so much smoother,’’ he said. “We tried Claire in the steeplechase, and she kept jumping through them. We had to stop because I thought she was going to get hurt.”
Howlett admits she has little coordination, and in middle school ran a 1-mile fitness test in 12 minutes. She went out for cross country because there were no cuts on the team, and she felt she might see results if she worked hard.
Lane got Howlett to improve her form, and she gradually became faster. “If you had told me when she was a sophomore she’d be this good, I’d have said no,’’ he said. “But after that, yes. I have a formula to predict progress, and she’s right on it.”
Howlett’s best time this year in the 1,600 is 4:54.15, and Lane said she has run simulated workouts in which she has broken 4:50. “She’s right on schedule,’’ Lane said.
Also contributing to Howlett’s success is competition. Staples sophomore Hannah DeBalsi has emerged as a national class runner as well. In last week’s Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference indoor championships, Howlett nipped DeBalsi by just over one second in the 1,600 and about two seconds in the 3,200.
“Hannah has made Claire a better runner, and Claire has made Hannah a better runner,’’ Lane said. “It’s a shame because there other girls in the state who are running great times. They kind of get lost because of how good Claire and Hannah are.”
Howlett is editor of the online edition of the Westhill paper, has earned straight A’s and is involved in several community service projects. “She’s the closest person to perfection,’’ Lane said, “that I’ve ever met.”
Howlett and DeBalsi figure to renew their rivalry Saturday at the Class LL championships in New Haven and throughout the rest of the winter and spring seasons. Then she’ll head to Stanford, following in the footsteps of Hopp and taking another step in an unlikely running success story.
“I want her to go to a coach who knows what he’s doing and can really help her,’’ Lane said. “I’m excited for her.”