STAMFORD, Conn. — When Westhill runner Claire Howlett joined the Vikings cross country team, she says she was not an athlete. But suddenly, a girl with little athletic ambition had jumped into the running fast lane and has a chance to make history.
Howlett will be among the favorites for the girls title in Thursday’s Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference championships at Waveny Park in New Canaan. If she succeeds, she would become the first girl from a Stamford school to win a league championship.
Darien’s Anne Johnston and Fairfield Warde’s Cate Allen are the only league girls who have beaten Howlett this season. Staples freshman Hannah DeBalsi will also be in the title chase. Westhill teammate Nicole Ambrosecchio, second last year, will also be among the top runners.
Howlett’s emergence is surprising because there was no sign she had the ability, or the mindset, to become an outstanding runner. “I was so unathletic my whole life,’’ she said. “I was never good at any sport. I tried soccer when I was 5, and I was terrible. I never really tried anything else. I was pretty adamant against athletics.”
She started running in eighth grade for general fitness and ran cross country in ninth grade. As a sophomore, Howlett blossomed. She finished fifth in the league cross country championships and was fifth in the Class LL outdoor championships in the 3,200.
“I didn’t expect to be doing this well,’’ said Howlett, who credits her success to Westhill coach Ed Lane. “My freshman year, I wasn’t close to this. At the end of last year, I was starting to get better.”
Howlett did her running homework over the summer, establishing a strong endurance base. She has been rewarded for her work this fall, including a seventh-place finish in the Ocean State Invitational in Rhode Island last month against a strong regional field. When Johnston beat Howlett in their dual-meet race at Wilton, the Darien runner set a course record.
While Howlett chases the individual honors, she’s also hopeful that her team can qualify for the state meet. Westhill has just five girls – the minimum required to score in cross country – and had to forfeit some meets because of injuries. “I love my team, and we have a great group of girls,’’ Howlett said. “We’re very close-knight. We haven’t had the success we’re capable of as a team because we don’t have enough girls. It’s frustrating, considering how hard we work.”
Before the cross country season started, Howlett was named one of six students from Stamford schools to win the Mickey Lione Jr. Scholarship Award for Youth Excellence. The award honors athletes for their academic achievement and community activism.
“I know he touched a lot of lives,’’ Howlett said of the former Trinity Catholic ice hockey and baseball coach who died in 1999 at the age of 59. “I’m honored to be representing the Mickey Lione Foundation. They do a lot of great things in Stamford. I’m honored to be a part of that legacy.”