Story and Photos by Jorge Campos
Riding in the same van, wearing the same colors, repping the same college, no one would ever guess that two Dons sophomore runners were competing against each other.
Jazmin Avila and Azahalea Vazquez qualified for Santa Ana College in the State Finals at Woodward Park in Fresno Nov. 22, after the two placed in the top 80 at the So Cal Finals two weeks before.
Two teammates joined the competitors for the five-hour drive through cow country, freshman Xiomara Duenas and sophomore Adriana Falcon, even though they were not in the race.
“They soothed the environment because if it was just us two,” said Vazquez “We would have been thinking about the race.”
When Head Coach Miriam Mitzel climbed into the cabin, she gave the athletes a quick pep talk.
“Lets do this,” Mitzel said.
She started the van and drove for the next five hours.
As the van raced north on Interstate 5 with Don Cheto blasting on the radio, Vazquez fell asleep. She was nursing a fever that had been affecting her for some time.
Duenas was awake, commanding the moment with her humor and playfulness. She force-fed Falcon Sabritones, dodged punches from Avila and tried to interview the reporter.
“So are you writing about me,” Duenas asked jokingly.
The bond they displayed speaks volumes about their development as a team throughout a long season that began with camp in Big Bear around mid-August.
“We became real close at camp, because I didn’t take the summer program,” Avila said.
In Big Bear, the team slept in tents and cooked on outdoor stoves, instead of opting for comfortable amenities like hotels and prepared restaurant meals. Mitzel’s idea was to create a team that is self-sustaining and dependent only on themselves.
“We froze our butts off. I forgot to take blankets so it was worse for me,” Avila said.
Throughout the season, Vazquez and Avila ran next to one another and separated, on average, by no more than 20 seconds.
Two weeks before Fresno, Avila caught up to and passed Vazquez for the first time.
But only by one second.
Vazquez woke up around the Grapevine feeling queasy.
“Azahalea was sick, she had a fever going up [to Fresno],” Mitzel said.
At the championships, Avila ran 19:52, while Vazquez hit the finish line at 20:06, or 11 runners later. Vazquez’s illness seemed to have affected her, as she ran almost a full minute slower at the championship then she did at the Orange Empire Conference championships on Halloween, running 19:09.
“I told her, if she can go ahead, to go, ‘Don’t wait for me,’” Vazquez said.
In about 20 minutes, their cross-country career was over. But the two accomplished a goal they set out to do: run against the best at state. While they didn’t win the race, they were proud to make it that far.
“I reminded them that they made it to state because they are one of the best,” Mitzel said.