Hailey Mercer of The King's Academy achieved a rare feat in November by winning an individual state cross-country title in her first season as a harrier; Mercer's 18:08 – the fifth-fastest time among all Florida girls – gave her a seven-second cushion over Episcopal's Emily Ingham and marked a 42-second personal 5K best. However, though the sophomore's heady triumph was perhaps as surprising to her as it was to others, her ascension to the top of the Florida 1A heap was engendered by the confluence of the usual distance-running suspects: talent, drive, and a solid stretch of consistent, injury-free training and racing.
"I didn't know what to expect, since cross-country was my first season back since having a stress fracture," says Mercer, who lost her entire outdoor season in 2004 to a stress fracture in the junction of her right tibia and fibula. She began training in July in the mountains of western North Carolina, at which point she hadn't run a step since March, but had cross-trained diligently with weights and in the pool. "I was still in shape," she says, "but I needed to get my leg speed back."
Mercer is no stranger to the winner's circle, having copped 1A track crowns in both the 1600 meters and the 3200 meters as an eighth-grader at TKA. That season, she recorded personal bests of 5:06 for the 1600 – for now her preferred event – and 11:23 for the 3200.
Mercer was probably found cross-training less daunting than most, as she is clearly an all-around athlete with a distinctly sport-happy pedigree. Until this year she spent her winter months in a basketball uniform, and her twin sister Hillary – though eschewing cross-country for volleyball in the fall – is the returning 1A 800-meter runner-up, last year finishing second to teammate Danielle Bradley. With the trio of Mercer, Mercer, and Bradley (sound like a good lawfirm), TKA theoretically brings the makings of a fine training partnership, but Mercer was forced to spend much of the cross-country season training alone on tracks in an effort to lessen her chances of re-injuring her leg.
Though currently in a base-building phase, Mercer was the top high-schooler in the Florida Indoor Intercollegiate meet this past weekend, placing sixth in 5:17.84. She plans to the run Gator invite on February 6, and then she'll make the trip to Washington, D.C. in March for the Nike Indoor Championships. Though she spent the winter of 2003-2004 concentrating on hoops, she ran at the Nike meet last year and took seventh in the frosh mile in 5:18.28.
Based on her performances to date on relatively low-key training, Florida track fans have every reason to expect a marvelous second half to Mercer's high-school career.