This is a story that should have legs – pardon the obvious pun – for the rest of Natasha Bernal’s life.
Think about a newcomer to high school cross-country, mere moments away from the first varsity race of her life. First terrain race of any kind, really.
She’s a bundle of nerves and about to toe the line before embarking on a run around the North Golf Course at the University of New Mexico.
The girl’s coach approaches her.
“This race is three miles,” he tells her. “Just pace yourself.”
The second part of that message was perfectly sensible. It was the first half that was shockingly informative.
“I didn’t know the race was three miles,” Bernal said, laughing.
Introducing your Class 6A state cross-country champion – and today, the Journal’s Female Athlete of the Year for 2014-15.
The La Cueva senior, a cross-country novice who exploded on to the running scene, may not have known how long a cross-country race was – “The fun part,” Bears coach Nick Martinez said, “was how naive she was about it” – but she certainly knew how to move in transit from Point A to Point B better than anyone else.
Same on the track. Combined in the two sports, Bernal ran 28 times.
She won 28 times.
“This,” she said, “is a season I will remember.”
Those 28 victories include nine in cross-country and 19 in the three track distances: 800, 1,600, and 3,200 meters. She leaves La Cueva with four state championships, all as a senior.
“I definitely knew I would be successful,” Bernal said. “It would (hinge) on how much work and dedication I was willing to put into the sport.”
She had abandoned soccer after her junior season, admittedly disappointed in her playing time and feeling disenchanted with the sport. Her running success arrived in short order.
She turned to track for the first time as a junior, reaching the podium in each distance at the state meet. It was then, she realized, that she might have a future in running.
But cross-country was an entirely different animal.
“She was so brand new to everything,” Martinez said. “We kept her wide-eyed, and she had fun with every meet. She’s a very, very smart kid, and she likes to compete.”
Bernal went out and took the UNM Invitational on opening weekend, then every major meet thereafter. As a veritable newcomer.
“I knew absolutely nothing,” Bernal said. “I ran track, so I figured that cross-country would only make me better, so I wanted to see what I could get out of it.”
Her coaches taught her from scratch – and on the fly – introducing various race strategies from week to week based on the course layout. Bernal absorbed everything, then dominated everyone.
“She’s so driven,” teammate Mason Swanson said of Bernal during last season. “One time, I asked her in practice, ‘How do you do it?’ She just said she knows what she wants and she’ll do anything to get it. And that’s inspiring.”
Bernal has signed to run for the University of New Mexico, fulfilling a lifelong dream to become a Lobo.
“I just want to get to that college level and see what it’s like,” Bernal said.
Valencia’s Carisma Lovato, a frequent rival of Bernal’s during the fall and the spring, also has signed with UNM.
“It’s her mental toughness,” Lovato said. “She always goes into a race wanting to better her time and be first.”
Bernal’s cross-country formula was this: run with the pack, then separate about midway through.
“A perfect blend of speed and endurance,” veteran La Cueva girls track coach Jim Ciccarello said of Bernal.
“She’ll break loose and see if anyone will go with her,” he added. “And if they do, she’ll pick up the speed and then settle again.”
Said Martinez: “She has a lot of pride. She enjoyed being tested.”
And it wasn’t as though she lacked challengers. But Bernal bested them all.
“Coach Nick shaped me into the athlete that I am,” Bernal gushed. “He knew I had the ability to be great.”
During track, Bernal ruled the 1,600 and 3,200 – she set a school record in the 3,200 at a meet in Arizona – and survived a scare in the 800-meter final at state, the toughest race she encountered in either sport.
Impressively, Bernal swept the three distances in a single day at state (just about unheard of) after the 3,200 was pushed from Friday to Saturday because of poor weather. Bernal ran the 3,200 not long before the 800; her challenger in the 800, Volcano Vista’s Sierra Quiñones, did not run the 3,200.
“Natasha was on a mission,” Ciccarello said. “She wanted to win three events at the state meet. It didn’t matter if it was one day or two days. She was ready for every one of them. (In the 800), she was not going to allow anybody to pass her and win it at the last second.”
Ciccarello compared Bernal favorably to greats such as Albuquerque Academy’s Julia Foster and Gallup’s Felicia Guliford. That Bernal acclimated so quickly was a surprise, he said.
“She did it in a shorter period of time, which indicates that Natasha has a bright future if she continues to push herself,” Ciccarello said. “She’s certainly in the same category as them.”
Bernal said leaving soccer for running proved to be an eye-opener and a blessing.
“I definitely found a home within running,” she said. “And I also found a family. I knew this was something I wanted to pursue and go on to that next level.”