by Howie Stalwick & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & ccording to a tired old joke, the only thing worse than track is field. True, track and field has seen better days in the United States. Only a handful of college and high school meets draw more than a handful of spectators, and virtually all professional meets are held overseas.
At its core, however, track and field is the purest of sports. Times are times and marks are marks, period. They determine, with the utmost finality, who ran the fastest, jumped the highest, threw the farthest.
Therein lies the beauty of Megan O'Reilly, a senior track standout at Mount Spokane High School. No matter how little you know or care about track -- or field -- O'Reilly's times and national rankings make it impossible to dismiss her remarkable accomplishments.
"I always tell her, 'Don't forget about us when you're famous and running in the Olympics,'" Mount Spokane coach Annette Pedersen says with a laugh.
Last Sunday at Stanford University, O'Reilly -- the only high school athlete in a field of Olympic, pro and college runners -- ran the third-fastest 5,000 meters, or 3.1 miles (16 minutes, 10.05 seconds) in U.S. girls high school history.
In February at the University of Washington, running against collegians and open runners, O'Reilly ran the fastest indoor 5,000 (16:26.37) in U.S. prep girls history. Overall, she placed 15th at Stanford and 11th at Washington.
High school track athletes rarely run more than 3,200 meters, but last November, O'Reilly set the course record of 17:35 for 5,000 meters to win the State 4A cross country meet at Pasco. She then placed fourth at the unofficial high school cross country nationals (a 5K sponsored by Foot Locker) in San Diego.
Last month, at the 41st Pasco Invitational, O'Reilly won the 1,600 in a meet record of 4:47.98. That ranks fifth in the nation among high school girls this year.
O'Reilly returns to Pasco on May 26-27 for the state meet, where she'll be favored to win her first 1,600 title and third 3,200 title. She hasn't gone all-out in the 3,200 yet this year, but O'Reilly says she's taking aim at the state record of 10:08.
O'Reilly has medaled (top-eight finishes) at state in both the 1,600 and 3,200 the past three years. She struggled with her training last spring and slipped to third in the 3,200 after stress fractures in both shins cut short her 2004 cross country season.
"I had a bad junior year," O'Reilly says glumly.
Mind you, O'Reilly rarely permits even a hint of negativity to enter her life. Her thousand-watt smile lights up a banquet hall, and Pedersen says O'Reilly is a team-oriented star who checks her ego at the locker room door.
"Personality-wise, you can't get better," Pedersen says. "She's so happy."
Hey, what's not to be happy about when you're young, healthy, enormously talented, almost a straight-A student and headed to the University of Montana on scholarship?
"She's perfect," Pedersen insists. "I mean, seriously. All the teachers love her."
Any doubt O'Reilly will someday run in the Olympics?
"No doubt in my mind," Pedersen says. "She's so disciplined."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & 'Reilly says she hopes to take a run -- literally and figuratively -- at the 10,000 meters in the 2012 Olympics. By then, O'Reilly hopes she's still running for fun, but also for cash.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a professional road racer," O'Reilly says.
Interestingly, O'Reilly has never run in Bloomsday, one of the world's most popular road races. Due to training conflicts, few high school or college runners enter Bloomsday.
"It's so sad," O'Reilly says. "I want to so bad. Every time I see it, I get so excited."
And O'Reilly appreciates the financial support that Bloomsday has provided her and other local athletes to help them travel to major cross country and track meets. After state, she'll prepare in earnest for the biggest meet of her life -- the Junior Nationals, a summer track meet for 19-and-under athletes. The top two 5,000 finishers qualify for the World Junior Championships in China.
Last Sunday's 5K at Stanford gave O'Reilly plenty of confidence ... and butterflies.
"I was more nervous than I've been in a long time," O'Reilly says. "It just sort of hit me: 'I'm in a race with people ranked in the world. These women are so fast!'
"It was pretty overwhelming, but it was just such a great experience."
O'Reilly plans to focus on the 5,000 and 10,000 in college, and she will also run cross country. O'Reilly chose Montana over high-profile programs like Oregon and Stanford.
O'Reilly's mother was a standout hurdler at Montana. Despite O'Reilly's gushing praise of the parental support she receives, she says the fact that her mother competed at Montana was "almost kind of a turn-off at first."
Strange. O'Reilly, who runs to daylight like few others, nearly got scared off by a shadow.