OAKLAND -- More than 1,000 feet above the Bay Area into the Oakland Hills, Eleanor Wikstrom rolls through a recovery day with her Skyline High School track teammates. It's a low-stress day but Wikstrom and the small group of boys running with her are methodical and focused in their approach despite intermittent rain and less than ideal conditions.
There's both a consistency and a joy about her as she and those with her churn through lap after lap, first on the wet track and later on the outer edge of the synthetic field.
Wikstrom, a junior, has an easy smile with warming and confident brown eyes. Behind that welcoming demeanor is a 16-year-old beyond her years who knows where she's headed.
Sean Kohles, a leadership teacher, activities director and the head track coach at Skyline is asked what makes Wikstrom special?
"Athletically? Because I think my answer to that question would be everything she does outside of running," Kohles said. "She's heavily involved in (school clubs). She's got incredible academia. She's on top of family life and friend life. She's super empathetic to people around her. And then there's athletics.
"She's been our team captain for the last two years, which is super telling. You don't tend to bring a sophomore on as a team captain but it just speaks to her maturity and drive as an individual. That makes her a special athlete."
On the track, her focused event is the 1600 meters, where Wikstrom is the school and CIF-Oakland Section record-holder. But track in the tiny Oakland Section, and girls distance running in particular, is hardly on the radar in the distance-deep state of California. While she is the gold standard in the event in this section, her 5:05.25 PR hardly registers in a state where it took 4:52.99 just to make the top 12 advancing to the State Meet final out a of a preliminary meet where 16 girls -- more than half the field -- ran under five minutes. Wikstrom, who ranks as the No. 51 returner in CA in the 1600, was in the back of that field.
That's what makes Wikstrom's stated goal of qualifying for the State Meet final in the 1600 all the more intriguing. While the numbers on the surface don't appear to support her chances of achieving said goal, everything about what makes Wikstrom special does.
Kohles, as go-to a guy as there appears to be when it comes to Oakland Section track and cross country history, says no girl from the section has ever reached the 1600 final at the State Meet, which has been contested for girls since 1974.
Keep in mind that while the Oakland Section is the second smallest of the state's 10 sections, fewer than a handful of schools field full boys and girls track teams, making it by far the smallest. As a result, events at the section meet trials -- like the girls 1600 -- will be cut when the field is too small for a preliminary race. Last year there were only eight girls -- seven from Oakland Tech and Wikstrom -- who were all passed into the final.
It's that Oakland Tech team and the specific influence of now-senior Caroline Garrett whom Kohles attributes the current surge in girls distance running in the section. Garrett, a senior headed to Wake Forest, is the section record-holder in the 3200.
"Eleanor kind of got wrapped up in that and now she's racing those girls," he said.
But despite having the fastest two distance girls in the history of the Oakland Section intersecting for three years, competition in the section is limited and running out front in local races is hardly preparation for the competition on the line at State.
Skyline High junior Eleanor Wikstrom (right) is training more with boys this year. (Jeffrey Parenti photo)
Oakland has always been home for Eleanor Wikstrom. She said her parents are both from the Los Angeles area but met as civil engineering students at nearby Cal-Berkeley, which is less than 10 miles through the forest and down the hill from Skyline. Her mother was a tennis player growing up and her father is now an avid cyclist. Last summer, Eleanor joined him for a 60-mile ride through Marin County.
Occasional long bike rides aside, Eleanor said she was never involved in sports other than distance running. She said she has always loved running. She started as a youth and loved that she was fast enough to run on the 'fast track' without stopping while others had to check in laps with the coach.
"A lot of children go through the phase 'I hate running'," she said. "I just never really had that phase. We would run in PE and I enjoyed it."
She arrived at Skyline as her sister Clarisse was a senior. Clarisse was a hurdler and not as focused on the distances as was Eleanor. Results bore that out and by the 2016 Oakland Section Cross Country Finals, Eleanor placed fourth and Clarisse was sixth.
"I think it caused a little bit of tension in the beginning," Eleanor said of beating her sister (now at UCLA and no longer involved in track), "but she did a really good job of laying the foundation for me to have a good distance career just by running with me."
Asked what inspires her, Eleanor paused, looked away for a moment, and obviously didn't have to look far.
"I think inspiration comes from a lot of different places," she said. "Probably primarily with what's around me. I've been so fortunate to grow up in Oakland, the diversity and the legacy of change that comes from this city and it's power, and the youth that I'm surrounded by. I see my peers doing incredible things every day, not only academically and athletically but also in leading protests and being a force for good in their own lives and beyond. I am definitely inspired by the beauty of Oakland."
Eleanor Wikstrom (13) ran in the 1600 preliminaries at the State Meet as a sophomore. (Pat Rhames photo)
Wikstrom has been to the State Cross Country Championships three years in a row, improving by more than 62 seconds on the Woodward Park course since her freshman year. But last June at Buchanan High in Clovis was her first experience in the the Central Valley heat and the pressure cooker that is the State Track and Field Championships.
A week after running 5:06.44 to win the Oakland Section meet, she fell off to 5:09.33 in the prelims at Buchanan.
"State did not go as well as I planned last year," Wikstrom said. "But this year, with a solid year of training, it's within my capacity and I'd be really excited to make it to the finals."
But is that a pipe dream or a realistic goal?
While last year by all accounts was one for the ages in girls distances, especially the 1600, there's still a time gap of about 13 seconds between Wikstrom's PR of 5:05.25 and the final qualifying time a year ago of 4:52.99.
Let's consider the following:
- Last year's 12th qualifying time was the fastest in at least the last nine years.
- The average 12th qualifying position over the last eight years is 4:55.50.
- Wikstrom's time from the prelims is the third-fastest among girls in that race in the 2020 class
- That time ranks No. 6 among returning girls from the prelims who were freshmen and sophomores
- And, it is the No. 12 time among all returners from the 2018 prelims in an event where the top 12 go to the final.
- As a freshman, Wikstrom topped out at 5:21 but an ankle injury cut her season short. Kohles says she was on pace to hit about 5:18 that year. Last year she went 5:05. "As you get faster, seconds become more difficult," he said. "But I definitely think she has another big jump in her."
- And, there's one last point to consider: Eleanor Wikstrom has the "capacity" to achieve pretty much on whatever and wherever she focuses her mind.
Which is quintessential Eleanor Wikstrom, says two longtime friends and current teammates who know her best, Maya Nichols and Mina Robitaille.
"When she likes something and is passionate about it, she just works so hard and just puts so much into it," Nichols said. "(She) doesn't just go by what everyone else is striving for, she makes her own goals to see how far she can go. It's really inspiring to be around that kind of energy."
"Yeah, there are smart people and there are fast people all around," Robitaille said, "but she just has this drive that just seems to push her into every possible area she wants to go into."
When presented with the times and the challenge to achieving this goal -- none of which she hadn't already considered -- Wikstrom gave a typically well-examined answer:
"This season, I'm really focusing on running with the boys who are faster than me and learning to respond to what other people do," she said. "In the Oakland Section ... often times when I'm racing in a dual meet I'm leading the whole race. It's valuable for me to know how to lead my own workouts and my own mileage and my races, but once I get to the bigger invitationals, I'm not necessarily the one calling the shots. So, learning to adapt to other people and to race with other people and respond to other people and make those split-second decisions is something I'm going to be focusing on this season."
Kohles acknowledged her challenge but also knows his runner well enough to trust that it's possible.
"She'll need to drop significantly," he said, "but based on her early season track times, it looks like that's already kind of coming to fruition as we hoped it would."
OFF THE TRACK
"Eleanor, as a human being -- it is not even to over-sell her -- just is an extraordinary person," Robitaille said. "In so many aspects of her life you see her excelling beyond what you see in anyone else. Not just what academics, obviously sports-wise, but just as a human being."
In the classroom, Wikstrom carries a 4.6-plus GPA, Kohles said. "Every available AP class that you can take she takes and gets an A in it."
Nichols said in first grade that Wikstrom had amazing handwriting and would read with the third graders.
"She would go up to higher classes for math and English," Robiatille said. "It's been for awhile that she's been like that. She was going to skip a grade but decided to stay because of her friends."
Outside of class, Wikstrom is a longstanding member of the Oakland Youth Chorus. She has been a consistent participant in Annual MLK Oratorical Festival where she won for a poem as a freshman, performed a speech about Black Lives Matter as a sophomore (link above, start at 45:20), and this year has advanced to the finals for a poem about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Cavanaugh.
"I've been writing, I guess, since I could form sentences," Wikstrom said. "It's something that I love to do. Not just as a form of therapy but I also I love the way English works and the way that the power of evoking emotions and sparking change, which you can do with just 26 letters and a set of rules and some syntax. I think it's a beautiful thing."
At Skyline, Kohles said Wikstrom wants to expand the school's clubs "into more of a system so they can be success every year. How clubs work at Skyline, if you have a strong leader, you have a strong club. If you don't, the club kind of dies. She's trying to build in systems so those clubs always exist."
She's already looking at Ivy League schools where she also wants to run and is considering two primary fields of study: Data science and international relations/foreign policy.
Of her interest in data science, she said: "I'm really interested in the way that the brain works and also being able to model that with numbers because -- although I do love words and I spend a lot of my time writing -- I understand there are certain things that are difficult to express in words and when those fail, numbers are a beautiful way to be able to do that."
She said an internship last summer with a Bay Area tech company provided "a little bit of exposure to (data science)."
Watch Eleanor Wikstrom battle Tori Gaitan, Sofia Abrego and Diane Molina in the 3000-meter race at the 2019 CA Winter Championships. (Matt Parker video)
Eleanor Wikstrom is a 16-year-old high school junior with a lot going on as she lays a foundation for her future. As a distance runner in the tiny Oakland Section, where does running really fall in the big picture of her life?
"This season is crucial," Wikstrom said. "Junior year is always kind of a make-or-break year as far as I've seen other people run. And I'd rather have it be a make year than a break year.
"Although, I'm not a senior and I have another year, this is kind of the accumulation of all the work that I've put in and seeing if it really does pay off and if I can go to the well when I'm racing and really tap into my full potential. I've had a lot of time to be able to practice that as I've built up to this point. It's come to the point where I need to put that to the test and truly see where I'm at."
Last Saturday, at the CA Winter Championships, Wikstrom battled along with a few of the state's elite distance runners in the 3000 meters. That group included Great Oak's Tori Gaitan, the top Californian at Nike Cross Nationals and runner-up for the state's Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year. Wikstrom ran with Gaitan throughout until the final lap and placed second.
"I think it's promising," Wikstrom said of the result. "That race was definitely about place. I more or less knew from the start based on the time we went out that it wasn't going to be an all-out race. It was a valuable lesson in learning to race with other people."