Cystic Fibrosis Hasn't Stopped Angelica Rock From Success

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By Jason Creasy - NC Runners

In North Carolina, Cardinal Gibbons High School's girls team is known for its success on the distance side. 

The Crusaders have won nine straight NCHSAA Class 3A ('10-'14) & 4A ('15-'18) Championships in cross country, which is an incredible feat that few high school programs have ever reached in any state.  

Each year the team produces its fair share of individual success, and every season athletes for the Raleigh-based program test their limits for personal bests. And from that perspective, senior Angelica Rock may looked like any other star athlete on any other program in 2019. 

She's had an outstanding senior year. Leading up to the regional meet, she'd run 2:24.76 for the 800m and 5:19.11 for the 1600m. 

But her running career hasn't always come easy, and her story goes deeper than just training alone. As a baby, she was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, which is a genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and over time limits an individual's ability to breath. Rock compares breathing akin to someone "standing on her chest."

Each day she has to do therapy called the "the Vest," which consists of her putting on an inflatable vest that has tubes attached to a machine.  Rock explains: "Air pulses through the tubes to shake my chest in order to loosen the mucus in my lungs. At the same time, I do two nebulizers to also help loosen the mucus in my lungs. If I miss a day, I know my lung function will decline. If I get up at 3 a.m. for my morning cross country practice during the hot fall, I will skip my therapy in the morning, but eventually complete it, even if it means falling asleep while breathing through my nebulizer at 10 p.m."

Along with her seven hours of therapy each week, Rock says she takes 170 pills to help combat Cystic Fibrosis.

At least in running, cystic fibrosis has been pretty predictable and has had a consistent effect.  

"Longer runs make me feel constant pain," she said, "and by the end, it feels like there is no more air around me to breathe, whereas for shorter runs, my lungs can manage and I feel less pain and stress on my lungs."

In an essay she put together for Great Strides, she wrote: "My Cystic Fibrosis is omnipresent. I cannot wish it away, cure it with a few pills like a common cold, or pretend it does not exist, but I do not let it define me. I do not trudge around with my disease, carrying it around like a hefty backpack. Rather, I wear it with pride. When people hear "Cystic Fibrosis," they think death, sickness, and struggles. But I don't think of it as a handicap or as any kind of prison. I think life, opportunities, perseverance, and the freedom to be myself. The disease that can cut the average human's life expectancy in half has allowed me to be live my life to the fullest, full of valor, optimism, and curiosity."

None of this stopped her from wanting to be active, though. 

Rock did gymnastics for eight years when she was younger and then began running during the sixth grade.  She says she has yet to have any major issues in sports, despite her diagnosis.

"I never had the mindset that my lungs were going to interfere with sports, so I do not doubt my capabilities," Rock said. 

Cardinal Gibbons coach Nick Mangum has learned how to work with Rock in practice and workouts. 

When Rock joined the team as a freshman, he said he wasn't aware of her condition. But around halfway through the season, he learned of her condition and then when the team they started fundraising for a Cystic Fibrosis walk her freshman year, he began to realize the extent of her diagnosis. Rock was just like everyone else on the team. She didn't want Cystic Fibrosis to be something that held her back in the sport.

It never has. 

Rock typically does the same thing everyone else on the team would do, but Mangum keeps a closer eye and can tell when she's struggling more than normal. He works with her to get the extra recovery she needs while giving her just the right nudge when she needs to crank a good workout.

A year ago, Rock ran on Gibbons' 4x800m relay team that was in state title contention. And with teammates Caroline Todd, Marissa Bishop, and Molly McGowan, the Crusaders were able to clock 9:26.83 to beat out Reagan for the Class 4A 100m title. That same year, Rock qualified for regionals in the open 800m individually for the first time and took 11th overall.

With a new year comes new expectations, though. 

She had the same double at the regional meet and entered seeded eighth in the 800m with an outside shot of making states as an individual. At Conference, she had taken seventh and fifth in the 800m and 1600m, respectively, and would face again many of the girls who had beaten her before. 

The 4x800m was no worry for the defending champs. Gibbons returned three legs from last year's squad in Rock, Todd, and McGowan and were able to coast into third place in 9:55.04, with many of the girls looking to conserve energy for later in the day.

Later, Rock lined up for the 800m.

Early on, a pack of three emerged: teammate Caroline Todd, Green Hope's Bailey Fowler and Middle Creek's Lauren Johnston all broke away from the field. The rest of the field sat in a tight pack through the 400m mark. Only one more girl would advance if they didn't catch the lead group.  

Rock knew it.

So the senior made a big push on the second lap and pulled ahead of the second group, hoping and praying for that last ticket to state. 

As the homestretch came, Riverside's Jordan Landis and South View's Kodi Payne closed the gap, then Landis swung wide. But Rock was having none of it and she clocked a new PR of 2:24.37, finishing ahead of Landis by just a few hundredths of a second.

Watch Rock qualify for the NCHSAA 4A State Championships in the 800m!

Mangum said Rock's individual qualification in the 800m was the biggest moment for the team at the regional meet.  

"Angelica trains and competes as if she isn't at a disadvantage," he said. " She's always been in contention for our varsity team in cross country and track. (But) seeing her success is a huge motivation for our entire program."

Each year since Rock has attended Cardinal Gibbons, she along with a group of teammates, students, and coaches, raise money for the Great Strides Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. They have a walk that is used as a fundraiser for research on Cystic Fibrosis. 

The walk is on May 18th, the same day of the NCHSAA 4A State Championship.  You can read more about Rock's story with Cystic Fibrosis and support the Rock Family/Angelica's Angels team.

Looking ahead to the important weekend, Rock is scheduled to compete in the 4x800m and 800m. It's no surprise she's ready for it. 

"In the open 800m, I hope to place and set a new PR," she said. "For the 4x800, I hope to experience the same success as last year at states, and just take in this amazing experience with my friends. I've felt very empowered running on big stages because I've been able to witness everyone's talent, but especially because I've gotten to do it with my teammates who are my second family."

It'd be very easy for Rock to use her condition as an excuse as to why she's limited in track and field.  But she hasn't done that. Cystic Fibrosis has had such a major impact on her life, she says, and she is determined to live life to the fullest and beat the stereotypes people with Cystic Fibrosis have.

"The popular stereotype of runners with CF is that everyone with CF is slow," she said. "I have been asked, 'How good can you even be with Cystic Fibrosis?' But with the right mindset, competitiveness, and the want to get better and succeed, I think most people affected by CF can find enjoyment and success.

"I run because this is the key reason I have stayed healthy, and I love it. My enjoyment comes from running with my teammates who also happen to be my best friends. We all love each other, do everything for each other, and want the best for each other.

Rock's competitive running career won't come to an end after her graduation at Cardinal Gibbons, either. 

Rock will be attending the University of California San Diego, where she'll hope to walk on to the team after tryouts in August.

She'll be ready, once again, to test her limits.