The pain and disappointment Cleo Naranjo felt two years ago in Albuquerque propelled the 12 year-year-old to a national championship in 2017.
This summer track season, the El Paso Panthers distance runner has her sights set on repeating her USATF National Junior Olympics Track and Field Championship in the 3,000 meter run.
The defense of that All American, national championship performance began June 2 at the 2nd Sara Bone Invitational where she placed first in the 1,500 in 5:09.93, she competed in the 13-14 age division
“I made it to regionals in Albuquerque two years ago,” she said. “At the hotel, I didn’t eat much but my stomach was hurting when the race started.”
During the 3,000 meter race – a smudge under two miles (1.86 miles to be exact) – she began to cramp.
“I was still running in the top five and the top five advance to nationals but it just got worse and worse,” she said, grimacing at the memory. “Towards the end of the race I started to feel really bad, Right then I knew my race was over, I was done.”
She ended up finishing last – dead last.
On that fateful day in July 2016, on the Milne Stadium track in Albuquerque, Naranjo discovered her passion to run, to compete, to chase a national championship.
“From that day forward, she knew where she needed to be to compete at that level,” said Sergio Talavera, the El Paso Panthers coach. “From then on, she started training with a chip on her shoulder. She wanted it, it was in her heart and through her hard work and her parents support she made it happen.”
At last year’s USATF National Junior Olympics Track and Field Championships at the University of Kansas, she won the 3,000 meters national championship in a time of 10:44.08 and was All American in the 1,500 meters finishing 6th in 5:03.94.
Naranjo, a former soccer player, has been running for only three seasons.
“Two years ago, I wasn’t really sure if I was going to like it,” she said. “Running was a new thing for me so I didn’t know how to run or to pace myself.’
Talavera placed her in the sprints to start but she didn’t feel she could excel in those shorter distances.
“The first practice I had with distance was in the sand and that was really hard,” she said. “But considering it was my first time and it was in the sand coach said I did really good. He knew I was a distance runner right then and there.”
She loves putting in the miles.
“It’s fun,” she said. “I’ve gained a lot of experience running the 3,000 so I’m use to how to pace myself and what interval times I have to hit in order to be where I want to be at the end.”
Naranjo will race in the 800, 1,500 and 3,000 at this weekend’s 3rd Annual Panthers Track & Field Invitational at Mt. View High School.
The running events begin at 5 p.m. Friday and 7:15 a.m. Saturday.
Talavera said he knew Naranjo was special the first day of practice three years ago.
“I use her as an example as to what hard work and dedication to your sport will bring,” he said. “There are a lot of people, especially in El Paso, who don’t believe they can become a national champion.
“When other runners were finishing in the top three or top five, I would say, ‘there are only three or four kids standing before you, what makes them any better?’ I tell them they are there in front because they are the ones with the bigger heart that’s what pushes them through it. That’s what makes them a champion and that’s what Cleo has, a heart of a champion. She is an athlete who knows what she wants.”
Naranjo is the first El Paso Panther athlete to win a national championship.
“I want to get back to nationals,” she said. “It was such a great experience. It’s been worth all the miles that I’ve put in.”