The Music City Distance Carnival will be live on FloTrack. You can watch Spada and other North Carolina athletes compete Friday and Saturday here.
Two years after she thought her racing career was over, nothing could distract Charlotte Country Day School junior Sophie Spada as she ran to a NCISAA 1600m state championship in dominant fashion on May 18.
"[I] just kept my foot on the gas the whole time," said Spada. "I wasn't even thinking about the time," said Spada.
Just as she had done the week before at the CISAA Championships, Spada sprinted to the lead right from the gun, slightly quickening her pace with the passing of each lap. And when Spada felt Cary Academy junior Hannah George sitting on her shoulder with 600m to go, she knew that it was her time to make the winning move.
"I trusted that I would have it for the last lap, and I just went then and ran away with it," said Spada.
Spada surged across the finish line nine seconds ahead of George in a new personal record of 5:05.89 to claim the first individual state championship of her career. She had already delivered a 2:16 anchor leg for the winning Charlotte Country Day 4x800m relay team the day before, and added yet another state title to her name.
Capturing two state championships is impressive, but it's especially admirable for someone who suffered a catastrophic injury two years earlier. Spada couldn't even lift her leg on her own for two months.
For Spada, her running breakthrough has been a long time coming.
"It's just really inspiring to see her just leave it all on the track," said Charlotte Country Day cross country and track coach Matthew Elliott. "We track and field people say that a lot, but she's finally figured out how to do that for herself, just truly lay it all on the track."
From potential, to injury, to recovery
Spada hasn't always been solely a distance star-one could almost always find her out on a field kicking a soccer ball as a young girl. From kindergarten through middle school, Spada spent her days playing soccer for a local club team. But when it came time to try out for sports teams at Charlotte Country Day in seventh grade, Spada wanted to translate her soccer speed out onto the cross country course.
"I was pretty competitive in the mile that we did in P.E.," said Spada. "That was kind of fun for me, so I thought I'd have a little bit of success [in cross country]."
Spada laced up her shoes and, with her dad alongside her, went on her first preparatory training run the day after her sixth-grade year ended. From there, she blossomed into a star middle school runner, the highlight being her win at the GCMSAA Cross Country Championships with a 3k time of 11:22.00 as an eighth grader.
Elliott paid close attention to Spada's success at the middle school level, and couldn't wait for her to transition to the high school team. "She was pretty much dominating our middle school division in the Charlotte private school league," said Elliott.
It didn't take long for Spada to burst onto the scene once she started competing in cross country as a freshman under Elliott. She broke the elusive 20-minute barrier for the 5k in just her third race and eventually improved to run a season best of 19:11.54. That time came at the NCISAA State Cross Country Championships, a time that translated to a fifth-place finish and All-State honors.
"She beat a lot of other people for the first time that day to finish fifth," said Elliott. "We were definitely on cloud nine that day."
Encouraged by her cross country success, Spada continued to race during the indoor track season, clocking a 1600m time 5:32.11 at the David Oliver Classic. Spada then thought, why not give outdoor track a shot in the spring?
Spada didn't foresee anything in her way that could stop her from reaching her newfound running goals
During the spring of her ninth grade year, she decided to tackle outdoor track, but she also wanted to continue her main sport: soccer. Since both sports are contested in the spring, Spada devised a plan where she would play soccer for Country Day during the weekdays and then compete in outdoor track meets and complete training workouts on the weekends, a plan Elliott found almost shocking. "I was kind of baffled that she was going to try to do both," said Elliott.
And everything seemed to go according to plan; Spada made the varsity soccer squad, and even ran in a track meet at Providence Day that March.
But things took a sharp turn for the worse shortly into the spring season.
Spada still remembers the day the ordeal occured: the first Monday after spring break. Like any other normal afternoon on a weekday, Sophie and the rest of the Country Day soccer team had practice out on the soccer field.
The team was scrimmaging, and at one point Spada found herself guarded closely by one of her teammates. She tried to move around the defender, planting her feet in the ground to make the hard cut. But Spada turned her hips while still leaving her feet glued to the field.
And then came the loud pop in Spada's knee.
"I just remember hearing the sound and screaming immediately," said Spada.
Spada immediately fell to the ground in pain, her teammates staring at her in confusion-the defender hadn't even laid a finger on Spada. Amid all of the pain and shock, only one frightening thought ran through Spada's mind: "'My running career is over.'"
Trainers quickly led Spada down to the track to run a test on her knee for torn ligaments. Initially, Spada received positive feedback. The trainers indicated that maybe her injury was just her tendon popping over a bone in her knee-not a big deal. Spada called Elliott when she arrived home that night to update him on her more positive status.
Yet little did she know that a simple misplacement of her feet had resulted in a grave injury.
An MRI shortly after her x-ray confirmed the worst: Spada had torn both her ACL and meniscus. She could feel herself quickly lose all hope, feeling that no one around her could understand the devastation she felt as an ambitious runner.
"[I was] not thinking that anybody knew what it was like coming from a perspective of wanting to do a sport in college and how much harder it was going to be [to recover]," said Spada.
But instead of allowing the heartache to set her back, she used the sorrow as motivation during her recovery. Spada didn't want to just be able to run again-she wanted to dominate again. "I didn't want to get back to just halfway or even where I was before. I wanted to be able to obviously improve after I got healthy."
What followed next was a grueling, extensive recovery process to nurse Spada's knee back to health in proper fashion.
Spada first had to wait to have surgery to repair her ACL. Since one's ACL is only truly needed for lateral movements, Spada could walk around before her surgery, but she also depended on crutches. She even recalls juggling a soccer ball the day before her scheduled operation.
Doctors used part of Spada's hamstring and a cadaver to repair her torn ACL and then stitched her knee back up. Following the procedure, Spada didn't anticipate the excruciating pain she would come to experience in her knee. She can still remember the uncomfortable tightness, the burning pressure, and the feeling of weakness.
"It just literally felt like it was going to explode, like my leg was going to burst because there was just so much pressure and there was so much swelling," said Spada.
Then came the many sessions of physical therapy consisting of mobility exercises to rid of scar tissue and strength exercises to gain back the power in her calves and knees. To get herself through the rehabilitation process, Spada tracked the time as she trotted along down her path to recovery. At six weeks, she finally kissed her crutches goodbye. Then at seven weeks, she could finally pedal one time around on the exercise bicycle, a task she found to be the most exhausting. Next came the two-month mark, and Spada could lift her leg under her own power. The later milestones of running on the anti-gravity treadmill and the regular treadmill came four and five months in.
Then Spada woke up one September morning during her sophomore year at 5 a.m. as ecstatic as ever. It wasn't just her sixteenth birthday-it was the day that she could finally run on her own around the track. She joined her dad on his run at a track at the crack of dawn, contently jogging one lap. Spada even arrived at cross country practice later that day at Country Day, where she completed a 4x1-minute jogging workout at around eight-minute pace.
Spada admits that she was exhausted after just her four-minute run, and worried that that state of discomfort would be the trend for months to come. "I was so gassed and so out shape. [I thought to myself,] 'This is going to be impossible,'" said Spada.
But Spada slowly began to develop her competition form; in her first mile time trial since her devastating injury, she crossed the line in around 6:24. Towards the end of the cross country season during her sophomore year, she even begged Elliott to allow her to race at the conference meet, desperate to toe the start line again. "I wanted to do one race, I didn't care how badly it hurt," said Spada.
Elliott ultimately told Spada that racing while still recovering wouldn't be beneficial, but she continued to trust his training. Spada finally made her race debut at the JDL All-Comers Meet in November with a time 5:53.85 for a full mile. Then about a week later, she competed in the local Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving, racing a tough 8k.
After about an eight-month recovery process, Spada finally felt that she was back on the right track.
But shortly after that JDL meet, Spada would face yet another painful obstacle. While watching her dad race the open 5k at Foot Locker South Regionals, Spada sprained her foot, a result of running around that day on unsupportive shoes. Frustrated by having to nurse yet another injury, Spada entered a dark space mentally.
"That was probably the toughest time of my whole recovery. That was the hardest thing to get over mentally, just feeling so close to getting back and then having that major setback," said Spada.
Fortunately, Spada's foot injury only kept her on the sidelines for about a month, nothing compared to her nearly yearlong hiatus from running as a result of her ACL tear. So she hit the track again in December, and from improved at what seemed to be light speed from then on. She dropped her 1600m time down to 5:36.56 during the indoor season, and then improved on the time during outdoor by recording a time of 5:24.74. Spada additionally dropped below 12 minutes for the 3200m during the spring.
After two injuries and countless months of pain, perseverance, and struggle, Spada finally gained the confidence she needed. "She's a grinder," said Elliott.
A new lifestyle
Spada found herself bored out of her mind as she sat on the couch during those long summer months when she was nursing her injury leading up to sophomore year. Since she couldn't focus on running, she turned to a new interest: nutrition.
"I was like 'Well, if I can't obsess over running than I've got to do something else,'" said Spada.
Just as she had seen one of her classmates do, Spada decided to create a blog, documenting her own experiences with her recovery and sharing her nutritional plans influenced by research she conducted. Her blog, "Sophie HealthStyle," includes posts on topics from healthy recipes to her own injury struggles.
Spada couldn't control her injury, so she became dedicated to learning about the aspects of running she did have control over, the little details behind fueling a healthy runner and a healthy lifestyle. She baked muffins and blended smoothies for herself and her fellow teammates, and made sure she got eight to nine hours of sleep each night, documenting some of her progress along the way on her blog. Spada still continues to practice these lifestyle tips nearly two years after she first devoted herself to them.
"I think that really helped my recovery because I understood that you can't just go to practice from 3:30 to 5 every day and expect to get better," said Spada. "It's got to be every part of your life, and nutrition is a big part of that for me."
It's these little things that Spada has done to take care of her body since her ACL injury that Elliott says has transformed her into a much stronger athlete. "She really invested a lot in some of those other things that kind of support the supportive things that make your running better. Even that has carried over a lot into her success today as well," said Elliott.
Spada has transformed her mentality as well as her lifestyle. Elliott sees a new tenacity in her, a confidence that most runners don't hold. "I was a track and field athlete for nine years and she's doing some things mentally and from a competition standpoint that I was working on my whole career," said Spada.
The new mindset combined with her revived lifestyle has propelled Spada to great success during her junior year. Aside from her outdoor state championships in the 1600m and the 4x800m, Spada claimed the conference title in the 1600m and won the Junior/Senior race at the Foot Locker South Regionals during cross country with a personal record of 19:04.37 in the 5k. She then dropped her 3200m time by over 30 seconds at Dash for Doobie last November, posting a time of 11:20.75.
Spada dedicated herself to her training, and it showed when it mattered most. She dedicated much of her time to weight training, and built strength that was evident as she started kicking in her races from 600 meters out this spring. Elliott has helped her work on her versatility, allowing her to channel strength from the 5k all the way down to the 400m.
In the span of a year, Spada developed a formula that clicked for her running career.
"She's been healthy so she's been able to get a lot of consistency which I think she had never really been able to do before in soccer and only doing cross country," said Elliott. "Now we've been able to really run for a full year and that's obviously really transformed I think her career and her future in the sport."
Beyond the injury
This Saturday, Spada will look to continue her breakout junior season across the state border in Nashville, Tenn., where she'll race against some of the top high school runners in the Southeast in the High School Girls Elite Mile at the Music City Distance Carnival.
It's going to be a race like she's never experienced before; she can't wait to have other girls pull her along to a fast time and even have a pacer pace out the race. "This will be her first collegiate-like race opportunity and what she'll hopefully be experiencing for many years to come," said Elliott.
As she toes the line on Saturday, Spada will think about qualifying for New Balance Nationals and possibly breaking 5:00, but she won't let that distract her. Like she did at the NCISAA state meet, she'll just keep putting the pedal to the metal.
"I don't want that to block my vision of just racing," said Spada.
Looking ahead at her senior year, Spada will look to lead Charlotte Country Day to a possible top two finish at the NCISAA cross country state meet and a team title win at the outdoor state championships. She'll then hope to continue her running success at the Division I collegiate level.
But Spada will never forget the struggle she overcame, the struggle that eventually catapulted her to the top level of distance racing in North Carolina. "It's definitely the best thing that's happened for my running career."
And to Elliott, that perseverance is what makes Spada unlike any athlete he's ever encountered.
"Her ability to show maturity and overcome adversity and, really with a lot of negative things going around her, to find the right positives and to stay grounded, it's really something like I've never been around in the sport," said Elliott.