No small feat

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- The most dominant athlete in Southern California sports isn't tall enough to reach Kobe Bryant's chin, even in running shoes, straining on tiptoes. She doesn't have much more heft than the weighted bat Albert Pujols swings in the on-deck circle.

She has never made a dime off her talents and, perhaps, never will.

But the wispy girl from Simi Valley with the bobbing blond ponytail has taken the high school running world and given it a shake.

It's a breeze to spot Sarah Baxter in competition. She's the one w-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-y up ahead, so far in front of the pack you'd never believe they all started together.

Veteran observers of the local track scene have never seen anything like her. Roger Evans has been coaching cross-country and track at Simi Valley High for 23 years. The wiry 64-year old, maroon stocking cap pulled low on a blustery recent afternoon, hasn't. In fact, he had never seen anything like her two years ago, when she was a 15-year-old freshman, setting what seemed like ridiculous goals.

"She gets into a zone and she can just keep going," Evans says.

Her feats seem to pile up in a mound of improbability: undefeated in three years of high school running; three times state champion; two times national champion at the Nike Cross Nationals in Oregon; in October, she ran the fastest girls three-mile cross-country time in 64 years at the Mt. San Antonio College Invitational: 16 minutes flat.

Two weeks ago, Baxter's history teacher interrupted class to inform everyone there would be a guest speaker. Out walked gold medalist Allyson Felix, there to present Baxter with the Gatorade national runner of the year award.

"She looked like she had seen a ghost," Evans says.

As she finished the first of her three miles that day at Mt. Sac, the announcer thundered over the intercom, "She is flyin' … Holy cow!" Somebody later called it "the greatest high school performance ever." More than 13 minutes into the race, her stride was still long, her posture upright. You could see the other girls shortening stride, beginning to slouch just a bit. Even watching it on flotrack.org months later, you get a sense of the electricity in the air that day.

It's not really about breathless pronouncements or trophies, though. There's something delightfully pure about it, just getting out and running, even as her career now starts to get a bit more complex -- the college letters piling up in her mailbox and coaches of every running program in the country waiting until they can call her house to begin recruiting.

Who knows what mix of nature and nurture come together to fan a talent this dominant, but she has been blessed in both regards.

She's got the right frame: about 5-foot-5, about 106 pounds. She's got the right genes. Her dad, Kevin, was a distance runner at Fresno State. He met Sarah's mom, April, on the Bulldogs track team. April Baxter was a star middle-distance runner.

Now, April Baxter is an area commander in the California Highway Patrol in Moorpark. Kevin Baxter works as a CHP officer, driving the freeways that dice up the sprawling San Fernando Valley.

They know a speeder when they see one.

"It started with us, but we can't keep up with her anymore," Kevin Baxter says. "She's on her own now."

April Baxter could see the talent in her daughter even as she struggled in her earliest stabs at athletics. They put her on a soccer team. She didn't score goals and wasn't all that great at disrupting the other team from trying. She kept running past the ball.

"She'd be three-quarters of a field away from somebody and close the gap in nothing flat, but she didn't like to be aggressive and go take the ball," Kevin Baxter says.

They finally figured it out when she was about 10. Just let her run. They've hardly been able to get her to stand still since.

She seems uncomfortable since all the attention started pouring in. In a pack of her Simi Valley teammates, she's hardly the most assertive. Ask her why she loves running and she says, "I just didn't want to be at home doing nothing."

It's one thing to land a college scholarship because of your talents, another thing to have the principal read out your latest exploits to the entire school over the intercom. Sarah just rests her head on her desk so the other kids can't see her blushing.

No matter how well she does, the jitters don't go away.

"I'm always really nervous before big meets," Sarah says. They gnaw at her for days and send her bounding down the trail on race days. If there's a better motivator for an athlete than fear of failure, it has yet to be found.

She is quietly, intensely competitive. She confides in her dad before every race that she is worried someone will be better than her that day. Ask her whether she smiles when she is in a race and she just looks at you, tilts her head slightly and shakes her head, "no."

The hardest thing about it might be the isolation. Baxter rarely gets to run with her teammates. When she does run with the pack, the other girls are huffing and puffing, gasping for air. Sarah is carrying on a conversation or breaking into song.

So, where does a runner this dominant at her level find a challenge? It's all about personal records. She has her sights on a sub-10-minute 3,200-meter run at the state meet in May. Roger Evans thinks she would have had it last year if not for a howling wind in Fresno. Her personal best is 10:08. It hardly seems like Sarah Baxter will be intimidated by a lousy eight seconds.

She might wind up running at Oregon, the collegiate running mecca, or Colorado, Wisconsin, or Stanford if she can get her grades up; and maybe by the time she's running in college, the competition will begin to make things uncomfortable, at last. We might hear from her again, though it's not as if cross-country results get much play in the sports pages.

But in the meantime, there's something satisfying about the most impressive athletic performances in town being pulled off in a quiet little suburb, by a tiny teenage girl, the girl nobody can catch up to.