Sports Person of the Week
Heffernan’s Forging a Path at North Branford
Carolyn Heffernan has found her niche as a distance runner and is looking forward to a productive sophomore season with the North Branford girls’ cross country team. (Photo courtesy of Carolyn Heffernan)
Last year, Carolyn Heffernan showed up at her first cross country practice at North Branford High School, excited to compete as a freshman. Carolyn had been running since the 6th grade and was eager to do so with the T-Birds. However, after arriving at practice, Carolyn and her friend Sophie Gambardella were surprised when Head Coach Chelsea Harris had the team go on a “light” run of four to five miles.
Even though she had competed at North Branford Intermediate School (NBIS), Carolyn had never experienced such a high level of running at that point in her career. While she was in shock at the time, Carolyn’s skills started to flourish during her freshman season as she realized that she wanted to invest her time in the sport of cross country.
“Middle school cross country definitely wasn’t as intense as high school. We weren’t sure how we were going to do, and we definitely thought we weren’t going to survive this. The transition was a wake-up call,” says Carolyn. “At the end of freshman season, I saw a big growth from how I used to run. My forms had changed, and my times had changed from the very beginning. It was a huge jump in success for me. I made a lot of growth and had hope for the rest of my seasons in high school. It was a little intense, but it paid off.”
Carolyn is a now a sophomore on the North Branford girls’ cross country team, which began its 2020 season last week. In a road meet against Morgan and Portland, Carolyn came in fifth place by completing the race with a time of 24 minutes and 14 seconds. That marked the fastest time Carolyn has ever run in a varsity race.
“I tried not to set my standards super high for this race. I stepped up to the starting line and just wanted to run, try my best, pass as many girls as I could, and focus on myself. I wasn’t even thinking about what place I was getting,” Carolyn says. “When I finished, I got my card, and I didn’t expect fifth place. I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do. I was so happy and impressed with myself. It was an eye-opener on how my training has paid off.”
Coach Harris was also impressed with Carolyn’s performance in the first race of the year. During the T-Birds’ preseason conditioning sessions, Harris could see that Carolyn had been training on her own and become a much better runner than she was as a freshman.
“You could tell Carolyn had been practicing and working on her endurance. She came back a whole different person,” says Harris. “Coming off of middle school running, it was a big change. She adapted well. After competing at that level, Carolyn really took into consideration where she had to grow in certain places and what she had to do to compete. She definitely did that and did a lot of work on her own. She came back strong. You can tell she worked hard on getting her times down.”
Carolyn started running cross country as a 6th-grader at NBIS. Carolyn had several friends who were already on the team, so she decided to join.
Now a member of the Thunderbirds, Carolyn is part of a four-person roster that includes senior Onna Gott, junior Regan Leete, and fellow sophomore Gambardella. While the roster might be small, Carolyn credits her teammates for helping her improve on the high school trails, just like her teammates in middle school helped her get into the sport.
“It’s so much fun. They’re my best friends. I have such a good connection with all of them. I go to practice, and I’m so excited to see them. Even in the worst of workouts, we make it the best,” says Carolyn. “Part of my growth in running has not only come from training, but also from their support and their constant efforts to reassure us that we’re doing great. We all try to support each other no matter what. Even though we’re so small, it’s good that we have each other.”
Carolyn never expected to become a full-time runner when she started with cross country, but now she loves listening to music and going on a long run whenever she needs to clear her head. As she continues into her high school career, Carolyn hopes to keep lowering her times, while continuing to make memories with her fellow T-Birds.
“I did not plan on this path. I really wanted to continue with cross country, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to. I didn’t know if I was going to be good enough or fast enough to compete,” Carolyn says. “To call myself a runner now is something that makes me very happy. It’s something I can continue the rest of my life. It’s your mindset. You have to keep going. It means I’ve progressed, and I can call myself mentally strong and physically strong.”