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Two years ago, Carmen Mejia was ascending bumpy climbing walls and scaling mountainous monuments.
The South Medford senior once traded track for competitive rock climbing, but the swap only lasted a season. She was back to running soon enough.
Now a rise to the top for Mejia begins with descent. As her racing times go down, the senior's chances of claiming a coveted state crown go up.
And Mejia, a perennial cross country runner, is doing all she can to improve those odds.
"I am very competitive," says Mejia, who participated in climbing instead of track her sophomore year. It was fun to pull herself up daunting walls, she adds, but Mejia developed a longing for something else.
"You kind of forget what you're missing when you're not doing it," the 17-year-old says.
Mejia — who seized state berths in the 400-meter race her freshman and junior years — funneled her energy back into track her junior season and hasn't looked back since.
The 2012 Southwest Conference first-team selection currently ranks among the top 10 in Class 6A in three events: she is fourth in the 400 (58.24 seconds), eighth in the 4x400 relay (4:06.98) as the anchor leg with Sarah Kapple, Lael Smith and Emily Lemons and ninth in the 800 (2:18.90).
Her marks in the 400 and 800 are the best among Rogue Valley athletes.
How has Mejia done it? Simply put, South head coach Mark Losinski says, by working very, very hard.
Her devotion has yielded a reward: the 4.0 student will compete next year for Claremont-Mudd-Scripps at Scripps College, an NCAA Division III school in Claremont, Calif. Three schools (Scripps, Claremont Men's College and Harvey Mudd College) combine in athletics.
For now, Mejia and the Panthers will compete in today's Grants Pass Rotary Invitational.
Mejia's primary focus has been on the 400 after capturing eighth in the event at state with a time of 58.92 last season. Her 58.24 this spring (set against Grants Pass on Wednesday) isn't too far off the 6A leader's time: Chiara Chandlee of St. Mary's Academy sits in first with an effort of 57.76.
"She ran all by herself at Grants Pass," Losinski says. "Now there's a breakthrough. You plateau for a while and it gets frustrating. You get to a certain point and it's hard to get past it and I think that meet Wednesday she got past it."
Mejia says she entered the dual especially motivated.
"I really wanted a fast time," she says, adding that the race was hand-timed. "Districts are kind of up in the air right now, so I wanted to make sure it counted."
Mejia has worked especially hard on running the first 200 meters of the 400 faster, Losinski says.
"A lot of that is conditioning," he says. "You have to have speed because in our conference there are fast kids in every race. If you can't run the first 200 fast then you are out of the race before it even starts."
Mejia's lone 800 attempt this season came against Ashland in a meet on April 24, and it turned out to be a dandy. She and the South coaching staff had discussed the possibility and made it a gratifying reality that day.
"When you are a good 400 runner, then really going down is not a big stretch and going up isn't a big stretch," Losinski says. "If you are a good 400 runner you pretty much can run."
Mejia ran a career-best 58.14 last season at the District 1 championships in Springfield before finishing in the top 10 at state.
"Our conference is crazy," says Mejia, who was recently awarded a Pear Blossom scholarship. "Last year I placed fourth at districts and made it to state on the second wild card."
Mejia placed 33rd earlier this season at the state cross country meet. She says the training she logs as a long-distance runner pays off big-time in track. Along with practice, she runs anywhere from four miles to 91/2 miles on the weekends with friends on trails and roads.
"It makes you mentally tough during races and during workouts," she says.
Losinski says Mejia's devotion to conditioning is rare.
"She's one of those few kids who stays in shape all year long," Losinski says. "In track, those are the ones who end up as juniors and seniors being really successful as opposed to the kids who come out as freshmen and sophomores, make a big splash and then kind of don't stay in shape."
Mejia's life path was paved many moons ago along the American dreams of two individuals. Her father Lorenzo came to the United States from Mexico as a child. He competed in track and cross country at North Bend High, once going up against Marshfield's Steve Prefontaine.
The University of Oregon graduate is now a local judge.
Her mother Cristina moved to Hong Kong and then to America from the Philippines at a time when martial law had been declared.
She attended UCLA, growing into a success herself.
Soon enough, Carmen came into the picture.
"I remember being on the playground racing the guys and trying to beat them," she says. "I went out my seventh-grade year in track and found out I was decent at it."
Ever since, she's been on the rise.
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com