Running A Family Affair For The Niednagels

Running success is in genes for the Niednagel Family. Most recently Rebekah Niednagel (left) was the top finisher for La Costa Canyon High School at the 2019 CIF-State Cross Country Championships and brother Caleb (right) now is running at the University of Colorado. (Photos by DeAnna Turner and Raymond Tran)

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SAN DIEGO -- Considering the blood lines, it's no surprise that the name Niednagel (pronounced 'need-nog-ul') and running success are one in the same.

All four Niednagel children are training; Caleb, the oldest, with the University of Colorado, and Rebekah (a high school junior), Jacob (a sophomore) and Isaac (a freshman) on their own awaiting the expected debut of the delayed CIF cross country season for La Costa Canyon High. 

When the three high schoolers hit the roads, often accompanying them as they have for some time, are their father Daniel, a CPA, and mother, Beth. 

While attending Dana Hills High in 1990, Daniel finished third in the CIF-State Cross Country Championships at Woodward Park, clocking a 15:37 over the 3.1-mile course behind Arroyo Grande's Louie Quintana (14:47). 

Beth, who was known as Beth Bartholomew while attending Fremont High in Sunnyvale, placed fifth in both the 1988 and 1989 State Meets, clocking times of 18:18 and 18:24, respectively, running behind the likes of Kira Jorgensen of Rancho Buena Vista (17:42) and Reyna Cervantes of Montebello (17:50) as a junior and Deena Drossin of Agoura (17:27) and Becky Spies of Livermore (17:33) as a senior.

Daniel attended a runner's workshop the summer before his senior year where Beth, soon to be a freshman at UCLA, was a counselor.

They reconnected when Daniel also attended UCLA and were married seven years later. 

On the track, Bartholomew set Fremont High School records for 800 meters at 2:14.27 (1989), 4:53.6 in the 1600m (1989) and 10:53.5 for 3200m (1990). She finished second in the state in the 1600m as a junior and went on to run 16:45.17 for 5-kilometers at UCLA.

Daniel was a 1:54.56 800-meter runner for the Dolphins and focused on the steeplechase for the Bruins.

Running figured to be in the cards but it wasn't predetermined.

"The kids played all the sports -- soccer, baseball, swimming, basketball, volleyball -- they did everything but we decided it would be best as they got older not to split up as a family," said Beth, who is an assistant coach at LCC. "We focused on running instead of going off to this thing and that.

"Running is a difficult sport to like right off the bat. I know I liked winning but not necessarily running when I first started. Winning and being a member of a team are positives. When they were young, we'd throw them into random races so they would learn that running isn't what they are, but what they do. It was 'just go do that and have fun.' 

"We'd say 'let's go race this weekend to do something fun.' "

While all four children competed at occasional races while attending Grace Classical Academy where Beth coached, none of them competed on a team until they attended high school.

Caleb enjoyed great success at both Dana Hills and then La Costa Canyon before an ill-fated senior year torpedoed his opportunities.

After competing with the best of the state early in the year, he came down with a flu near the end that severely limited his practice time which in turn affected his races. After placing fourth in the state in 2018, leading the Mavericks to a second place finish in 15:07.3, he was almost a minute slower in 15:56.5, finishing 52nd in 2019.

Even worse, when the family took a trip to Hawaii in January, everyone but Beth contracted what they now realize was COVID-19.

Barely over the first flu, Caleb and Jacob were hit hard but as it turned out, it wouldn't have mattered because there was no real 2020 track season.

Rebekah, who recovered quickly, is now a junior and taking a leadership role.

"I can give advice -- like how to check in with the clerk of the course -- the way Caleb gave it to me," she said. "Our parents give us advice and, of course, we listen.  Sometimes we get a little annoyed but in the end we know we should listen because they have the experience.

"Going out and running early in the morning isn't always easy. It's not 'Oh yippee, let's go out and run' but we know we need to do it to succeed. At first it was kind of crazy that (her brothers) are on the same cross country team but it's very fun to cheer for them. We train together -- they're faster."

Rebekah was poised to reach one of her goals last winter when she ran 5:08 at the Mt. Carmel Distance-Field Invitational. Although her best is 5:03, she felt she was on pace to run that first sub-5 when the season shut down in mid-March.

Like most everyone, she hasn't seen or run with her friends since.

"When she was a freshman, Rebekah wasn't even among our top 10 but by the end of the year we knew she'd be there and she was," said LCC coach Bill Vice.  "As a sophomore, she was always in our top three --she's really a great cross country runner."

Rebekah is leaving her options open but would very much like to follow her parents and attend UCLA.

Vice was also impressed with Jacob last season. Freshmen boys rarely step right in but that's just what he did, making the varsity team while gaining experience.

"It's there, he has great form," said Vice. "But he also ran like a freshman; he ran well and sometimes not well. It takes time but he's very, very solid."

Isaac is a freshman this year and so far all he knows about high school cross country is running with his family and looking back at watching his older brothers and sister.

Vice, like every coach, is frustrated at having to meet with the team on-line and not being able to see them train first-hand. But he has no doubts Isaac and the others are working hard considering the family dynamic.

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Inserted photo courtesy of the Niednagel family.