In the fall of 2019, Bethel sophomore Ava Graham decided it was time to make a switch. After playing soccer every fall since she was 5-years old, Graham’s switch to cross country was immediately rewarded in her first season.
“It is pretty amazing, she had played soccer earlier,” Bethel girls cross country coach Christopher Ciparelli said. “She had a lot of success her freshman year in outdoor track and then decided to try cross country so we had a pretty good indication coming in to her first year of cross country that she was going to have success. Obviously not knowing exactly how much success she was going to have with the longer distance but immediately she took to the work. She does everything she is supposed to do the right way and always wants to do more. That is what you want to see in all of your athletes.”
In Graham’s first cross country season she finished fourth in the State Open, was the sixth place finisher in New England’s and won the Class M race.
“Changing from soccer to cross country was definitely a good decision,” Graham said. “I love soccer, I have been playing it since I was 5-years old but I didn’t necessarily enjoy the team aspect as much and I have had a lot of success in cross country. This is my favorite season because I get to run up hills and be outside and I think hills are something I am personally better at that some people struggle with so I think that is something that helps me.”
In her second season, Graham continues to solidify herself as a top runner in the state, capturing three first place finishes in her three races.
Graham took home the first meet of the season against New Milford and Brookfield, finishing before New Milford’s Claire Daniels, who finished second in the 2019 SWC Championship less than a second before Graham.
“I am very much looking forward to competing in the SWC championship,” Graham said. “My first race this season was helpful, having Claire near me because it gave me extra push but the last two races have been pretty difficult because it was just me. I didn’t even really see anyone in this race.”
Graham has yet to race against SWC favorite Kate Wiser of Pomperaug, who broke a New Milford course record last week in 16:34.
“The SWC is a blessing and a curse,” Ciparelli said. “In most years any one of Claire Daniels or Ava would be walking away, and Kate Wiser is still doing it, as the No. 1 in most conferences. It just so happens that the three of them live in close proximity to each other and have to race each other. But it is also good because athletes like that only get to be challenged in maybe the conference and state championships, but these girls have dual meets against each other.”
Graham joined a Bethel team last year that was in need of a true No. 1, and since her arrival the program has benefited.
“The program has been lucky, when she came on last year we had three years in a row of new number one runners,” Ciparelli said. “We had senior now Nicole Popham and then Miranda Anastasakis who is now a junior and then Ava came on last year. The year before Nicole joined, the girls thought that 23 minutes was unattainable. Other athletes were doing it, but nobody on the team was. As soon as we had a taste of success it made it easier for everybody.”
Graham attributes some of the reason for her fall sport switch to Anastasakis, who was one of many influencers that included coaches and family members.
“My friend Miranda Anastasakis was trying to get me to do it and coaches in middle school as well,” Graham said. “Having success in spring and winter track is really what pushed me towards cross country. If I hadn’t done track and wasn’t successful, I probably wouldn’t have switched.”
Today it would be difficult to argue Graham did not make the correct decision, but in the very beginning there naturally was uncertainty.
“I really don’t know what I was expecting coming into it,” Graham said. “During summer camps before my first year I worked with a lot of coaches and they kept telling me that I was going to have a good season, so I was looking forward to it but didn’t know what to expect. I am obviously happy with the results.”
Happy with the results could be viewed as an understatement considering her level of success, but Graham’s competitiveness and high standards make her hungry for more.
“Next year I am praying that we are going to have a State Open or New Englands,” Graham said. “I really would love to win the State Open next year and get into a top position in New Englands. I am looking forward to it.”
“I know she isn’t happy with her time today,” Ciparelli said after Graham’s first place finish last week against Newtown in 19:16.91. “Her PR is 18:49 and she wanted to break that today. The past few races, even with Claire she was a little bit ahead, but she hasn’t really been able to be pushed yet, but in SWC’s we will see. Kate can run what she can run, Ava can run what she can run and Claire but we know that all based on past performances, but on any given day someone can run a little faster or a little slower, who knows?”