Tackling an appetite for two sports at once

Foot Locker finalist Sophie Chase of Virginia has managed to balance competing in two sports at the same time. John Nepolitan/Scott Ripley

Champion runners Sophie Chase of Lake Braddock High in Burke, Va., and Nicole Mello of Hickman High in Columbia, Mo. have a lot more in common than being two of the nation’s up-and-coming distance stars.

They were both Foot Locker national cross country finalists this past season.

They’re both juniors. They’re both strongly-built young women at 5-feet-7 and 118 pounds. And, with much more activity on their plates than running, they both love to eat.

“I l-o-o-o-o-v-e breakfast,” said Mello, who placed 20th at Foot Locker after taking seventh in the Midwest Regional. After breakfast, in school, Mello said she snacks every hour, on energy bars, fruit, and peanut butter crackers.

“I eat a really big breakfast, a really big lunch and a really big dinner,” said Chase, 11th at Foot Locker in her second trip to the finals.

Chase loves breakfast as much as Mello does. She has oatmeal, a bagel and cream cheese, banana and yogurt. “And a lot of milk,” she added. “I’m big on milk.”

These two cosmic appetites are rooted in what Chase and Mello share the most: they are successful multi-sport athletes who started swimming at age 5 and currently swim and run in the same seasons. Both girls swim for club teams as well as their high school teams. Both run track and cross-country. Hence, for nourishment, both girls eat like there’s no tomorrow.

Non-Stop Training and Racing

In an era of youth sports specialization, these girls are in the vanguard of the next horizon — two-sport specialization in which a high school athlete goes pretty much full tilt in two sports year-around. Depending on your point of view, this is either a recipe for disaster — potential injury, burnout, conflicts among coaches and parents -- or an exciting challenge for exceptional teenagers who can use each sport as a building block while honing time management skills.

Amid their non-stop workouts and meets (how would you like to be on laundry detail in their households?), Chase and Mello have found ways to keep things in balance.

“Sophie benefits from swimming by getting in the extra cardio work without the pounding,” says Lake Braddock track and cross country coach Michael Mangan. “We work out the racing schedule ahead of time. It’s not an issue.”

“My running helps my swimming, and my swimming helps my running,” said Mello. “I feel odd on a day when I don’t have both sports. My body can tell when I really need a good swim.”

From a fitness standpoint, running and swimming are compatible cousins.

There’s no question that from their years in the pool Chase and Mello brought fantastic cardiovascular development into running. Chase started running in high school. Mello ran the Junior Olympics on a youth track squad before high school.

The war stories that track and cross country coaches often tell about multi-sport conflicts usually center on the consensus public enemy No. 1: soccer.

“The club movement is infringing on high school,” says Roger Evans, girls cross country and track coach at Simi Valley High in California, home of 2011 Nike Cross Nationals champion Sarah Baxter. Evans said that the issues usually revolved around traveling team soccer, but may also involve other travel sports like basketball and softball. In many communities, traveling team sports have few breaks and conflict with track and cross country.

Three Sports, Honors Classes… What Gives?

At Pearl River High in New York, girls track and cross country coach Dan Doherty has had runners doing three sports simultaneously—travel basketball and soccer in addition to track. “And usually,” said Doherty, “those same kids are taking all the honors classes. You wonder, ‘What are their parents thinking?’ Something’s got to give.”

Soccer’s impact on running made recent headlines when a top runner and soccer star from California, Sarah Robinson, a sophomore at Gunn High in Palo Alto, gave up her Foot Locker nationals berth to participate in a U.S. soccer under-17 training camp that same week. Robinson had placed fourth in the West Regional. This past fall she attended cross country and soccer practices daily.

As Doherty points out, since there is no such thing as “Little League Track,” most young athletes will enter a high school cross country or track program with years of family commitment to other sports. Coaches have no choice but to try and work out an accommodation with parents or risk losing talented runners.

Oftentimes, parents, groomed on community teams, do not appreciate the magnitude of a high school varsity program.

“Why are we the second fiddle?” asks Doherty.

The head coach at Hillsborough High where I assist in New Jersey, Rich Refi, asked the same question when a freshman girl missed meets for traveling softball and at times another freshman missed practice to attend a sibling’s club soccer match. Refi had worked out a schedule with the softball player in which she could do both sports. The girl was conscientious and a pretty good runner.

However, her busy season took its toll and in mid-season her parents pulled her out of cross country.

Chase, 17, joined high school cross country to get in better shape for swimming. “I didn’t think I would be much of a runner,” she said. Chase had run a 5:41 mile in middle school P.E. As a freshman, her 5k cross country times went from the mid-19s to the mid-17s. She placed third in state 3A, leading Lake Braddock to the team championship.

Mix and Match, From Track to Pool

Aside from parental issues, it takes a tremendous amount of planning and calculation to make the two-sport specialty work. This winter, Chase will run indoor track while swimming for both the high school team and her club, Mason Makos. Chase is a champion breaststroker who made the 2011 NCSA Junior Nationals in the 100 breaststroke. She’s also a 4:52/10:25 track performer outdoors.

Upcoming, Chase will do track practice Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then she’ll swim with her club from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday she’ll skip track while doing the high school swim practice along with some weight training. Friday’s an easy run then a swim meet at night. She’ll run Saturday and Sunday, with no swimming. Chase tries not to miss hard workouts, and also tries not to do a hard run on the same day as a hard swim.

“It’s definitely difficult,” said Chase, who maintains a perfect 4.0 GPA in the classroom. “Last year, I felt burnt out at the end of the winter season. But this year I’m a stronger athlete.”

Chase’s strength comes from smart eating, constant hydration and a good night’s sleep, 7 1/2 to 8 hours a night. Last year, she received dietary counseling from a nutritionist, who gave her a meal plan that included meat, fish and plenty of fresh vegetables. Her snacks after cross country practice and before swim practice were on the order of chocolate milk (shown to be an excellent recovery drink in various studies), fruit and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“Some girls who don’t put enough nutrition into their bodies will not be able to hold their strength for long,” said Chase.

That goal is no problem for Mello, who logs up to 7,000 yards at swim practice and feasts on her mother’s lasagna. Mello’s mother, Magda, is a nutritionist. Her father, Cesar, is a former world-class swimmer and coach. (Mello has an older sister swimming in college and a twin swimming with her at Hickman.) Like Chase, Mello is a top-notch student with a 3.9 GPA. “My parents always stress that academics come first,” she said.

Last fall, Mello, who turns 17 in May, was up at 4:40 a.m. for 5:30 club swim practice before school. After school, she did cross country. With her busy schedule, Mello wound up ninth in state Class 4 in 19:42. In the postseason, training on her own, she made it to seventh in the Foot Locker Midwest, running 17:43.

Sleep Issues Critical For Good Health

With her morning swim work, Mello said she gets only six hours of sleep a night, a deficiency associated with high injury risk. In the fall of 2010, Mello suffered a stress reaction in her foot and had to wear a boot. She still competed and qualified for state. According to news reports, Mello came to the state meet on crutches, removed the boot and ran, placing 11th. After that, Mello took a full recovery.

One key safety valve for Mello is that she does not run indoor track. In the winter, she swims only for Hickman, not the club, which resumes in spring. Each season has a priority, she said.

The key for all of this to work — other than heaping portions of lasagna — is for open communication among coaches, parents and athletes, so expectations are shared and compromises, when necessary, are understood. While it might be natural for track and cross country coaches to feel defensive, you can’t take a hard-line, all-or-nothing posture at the outset, or you’ll likely lose a youngster with potential.

Doherty said that if you enable the newcomer to experience success, you could win them over into running, especially as they develop new friendships.

Evans agreed. He’ll facilitate dual loyalties with freshmen, feeling that by sophomore year they’ll likely choose one sport or the other, oftentimes running.

Of course there are no guarantees. Doherty had a girl on his team who also played soccer and developed a bad case of shin splits. The doctor told her to lay off for a couple of weeks. “When I told the mom that her daughter had to lay off from soccer as well as track,” she said, “That’ll be the day.”