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Recollections of Swain: CU's Wheeler made Swain her race

No one has epitomized the Swain Cross Country Meet more in recent years than former Duluth East superstar Kara Wheeler. Now at the University of Colorado, Wheeler has blossomed into one of the NCAA's premiere runners, but it all began in Duluth, ...

No one has epitomized the Swain Cross Country Meet more in recent years than former Duluth East superstar Kara Wheeler.
Now at the University of Colorado, Wheeler has blossomed into one of the NCAA's premiere runners, but it all began in Duluth, she said, where she laid the foundation for a brilliant running career at the Swain Meet.
"The first time I ran Swain was in seventh grade," said Wheeler, who competed in the junior varsity race that year. "I remember my grandpa saying, 'I can't believe you're running the Swain, because your uncle ran it.'"
"I just remember the fact that my grandpa knew what it was. That made it a special race. I saved that T-shirt until it had holes in it."
She won the junior varsity race that year. It would be a sign of things to come.
The next year, Wheeler was an eighth-grader, running the varsity race for the first time.
"I was horribly nervous," she said. "I was running against all of the state's contenders. It was the most nervous race I had ever run."
Wheeler finished second that year to Duluthian Amy Hill.
"I was so envious of her," said Wheeler.
By ninth grade, Wheeler was done being envious. The race was moved from Proctor back to Enger Park, and the then freshman captured her first Swain Championship.
"I finally won," she said. "I was so happy. And grandpa was there waiting with the water bottle."
As a sophomore at East, Wheeler was ready to explode into state cross country title contention. The catalyst was the Swain Meet.
"It was basically the state meet, because all of the winners were there," said Wheeler. "But I was at home, and I beat the top girls in the state."
The triumph gave her the confidence she needed as the season ground along toward the state meet. Whenever she struggled, she reminded herself of Swain, where she had beaten the best. By season's end, she had captured her first state cross country title.
By her junior year, Wheeler had begun to think about college running competition, so when the Swain race was lengthened to 4K for the girls, she was delighted.
"I knew it would give me a better chance to make the Foot Locker 5K team," she said.
Wheeler won again, and one year later she took the line at Swain for a final time, as a senior, alongside her younger sister Kendall. They finished the same way they started, almost side-by-side, as the sisters captured first and second place.
But running with her sister was only part of what made her final Swain memorable.
"It was really special, because I was having a horrible season," said Wheeler. "I went to Swain, and somehow, I won. It was a really special day. It made me realize that I'm not horrible."
It also bronzed her reputation as one of Swain's greatest champions.
"Swain was always the best because it was home," she said, as her mind drifted through the memories.
"It was the best race."

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