West Forsyth senior runner Liz Galarza took advantage of every second chance she received this past season.
Coming off a lost junior season to a stress fracture in her foot, Galarza was healthy and competitive again from start to finish, winning three events, including the Class 7A meet at the GHSA State Cross Country Championships, a season for which she is the 2016 Forsyth County News’ Girls Runner of the Year.
Even at the state meet, Galarza admits she might have caught a break when a runner fell in the first 100 meters, forcing a restart.
Galarza knew most of her competition that day. She’d gone head-to-head with most of them: South Forsyth’s Kaylee DuPont, Etowah’s Macki Walsh, Milton’s Marie Repasy. There was one more runner Galarza knew could be a threat, but she’d never seen her. Right up until the starting gun popped, she was a mystery.
But Galarza spotted her as soon as the race started.
“She took off at the speed of lightning,” Galarza said.
Galarza’s nerves got the best of her at the sight of this runner streaking ahead. Her plan going into the race was to be in the top group of runners but not the top runner. She’d make her move at a downhill after the first mile.
But Galarza started shaking through the first 100 meters, and she felt herself trying to catch up, abandoning her plan.
The sound of the second gun stopped all the runners, and as Galarza walked back to the starting line, she looked at her West teammates nearby.
“They were like, ‘Woooo! Don’t worry, just have fun!’” Galarza remembers. “So I was like, ‘Whew. Just relax, go back to the start. Just relax, have fun.’”
This time, Galarza stuck to her plan.
“That second time I was like, ‘OK, just let her do her thing.’” Galarza said. “’You have your plan. Don’t let the nerves get in the way of your plan.’”
At the second start, Galarza stayed with the top group of runners. After the first mile, the mystery girl was ahead again by 10 meters, but Galarza was undeterred. She caught up to her, then soon pulled ahead.
“I just kept following the plan,” Galarza said, “kept hammering, kept hitting those fast splits, just kept working hard.”
Going into the final 400 meters, Galarza could smile as she took her last look behind her and saw no one, paving the way for her to become just the second individual girl cross country state champion in Forsyth County history.
It was a day that summed up what she’s learned from four years of running at West Forsyth. Galarza was an instant contributor for competitive West Forsyth girls teams. As a freshman, she finished 24th overall to help West place fifth as a team. As a sophomore, she catapulted to the top, coming in third overall, and the Lady Wolverines finished fourth.
Galarza seemed headed for even bigger things last year before her injury, but the time away motivated her to “not to be scared,” Galarza said.
That’s the mentality Galarza will take with her next year to Georgia Tech, where she verbally committed soon after her state championship run.
Galarza originally planned to go to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She’d taken one of those online surveys to determine a suitable career, and her interests in math and science produced biomedical engineering. Johns Hopkins had the top-ranked biomedical engineering program in the country at the time.
But as Galarza’s times dropped this past season, Georgia Tech began to show interest in the Lady Wolverines senior. And then, the U.S. News & World Report changed its rankings – the Yellow Jackets were now No. 1 for biomedical engineering.
“Oh, it’s a sign!” Galarza said. “It’s all coming together!”
It finally did.