LAFAYETTE — When an athlete experiences as much success and attention at such a young age as Peak to Peak cross country standout Quinn McConnell has, it helps to have a quiet place where it's possible to drown out all the external noise and pressure.
For McConnell, that place is a horse stable where she spends time with her 4-year-old thoroughbred, Rio. Every day after practice, McConnell leaves to ride Rio, who got his name because McConnell's family bought him off a race track in Tennessee during the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Spending time training Rio so that the former race horse can be sold as a jumper before she leaves for college gives McConnell, who has been riding horses for over 10 years, a welcome break from the grueling cross country training regimen that has already won her two Class 3A state titles as a junior.
Since winning her second title and leading the Pumas to another team championship this fall, McConnell has garnered the usual levels of esteem that have followed her since she entered high school. For the third straight year, McConnell is the BoCoPreps.com Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.
Once this offseason finally arrives, if one every truly does for her, it looks like McConnell is going to be spending plenty of time at the stables with Rio.
"It's super awesome and it's definitely hard to balance it with everything, but it's great that I have that outlet," McConnell said. "He's a little wild and crazy, and a little unpredictable, so my mom isn't always crazy about me riding him. But I love it and it keeps me balanced and makes me happy."
Quinn McConnell's mom, Kim McConnell, is also the head cross country coach at Peak to Peak, so it's understandable that she wouldn't be completely thrilled with her daughter and team leader risking injury to pursue her side project. But what did give Kim McConnell a thrill was watching daughter respond to the disappointment of placing second after losing the lead because she collapsed just before the finish line at state last season.
In her return to the state meet, Quinn McConnell not only won her second individual title, she set a 3A classification state meet record of 18 minutes, 31.6 seconds. Crossing the finish line in order behind Quinn McConnell, junior teammates Anna Shults and Tiana Bradfield rounded out a 1-2-3 sweep to help lock up the Pumas' second consecutive team championship.
"I thought Quinn did a very good job, mentally, of coming back from a difficult experience last year," Kim McConnell said. "I think the biggest highlight this year was the girls going 1-2-3 and our team being able to win again. I was very proud of her re-gathering herself and winning this year, but we were all even happier about the team win. And our guys getting third after getting 15th last season gave us probably the best combined finish in our program's history, so that was really great."
Even after all of that, there hasn't been much time for the Quinn McConnell to take a break and hang out with Rio. Three weeks after state, she and the Pumas traveled to Nike Cross Regionals Southwest in Casa Grande, Ariz., last Saturday.
While Shults placed fourth and qualified for Nike Cross Nationals on Dec. 2 in Portland, Ore., Quinn McConnell placed seventh and missed qualifying by one spot. She and Bradfield will now hit the road again, this time to Kenosha, Wisc., this Saturday to race in the Footlocker Midwest Regional for another shot at qualifying for a national championship.
So the Pumas continue their tireless cross country circuit, and Rio waits for Quinn McConnell to return each time she leaves to push herself to new heights. But whatever happens over the next few weeks, the Pumas harrier said the season is already a success because the Pumas accomplished their number one goal of dominating the state meet as a team.
"When we started the beginning of the season, the second we had our first run during the summer, the goal was to win as a team again and to go 1-2-3," Quinn McConnell said. "Especially for Tiana to have such a great second half of the season and to come up huge at the end was great to see. It's so exciting that we all have one more year and hopefully we can score even higher next year."