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The freshman harrier finds herself No. 1 in the conference and No. 4 in the state with a desire to continuously grow.

COURTESY PHOTO: MOLALLA HS CROSS COUNTRY FACEBOOK PAGE - Molalla cross country runner Anika Jenson (center) won the Ultimook Race at Hydrangea Ranch on Sept. 3, and has been breaking her own personal bests routinely since then.

Molalla cross country runner Anika Jenson is powered by her love of the game. That game is racing other harriers on various cross country courses, and the love stems not from defeating the people she leaves in her wake. It's actually pretty simple.

Jenson just really likes running.

"I don't know, it's my favorite thing to do," Jenson said. "It's my favorite hobby."

Jenson began running in a competitive sense around three years ago. She set records at Molalla River Middle School and continued to chip away at her personal bests. Coming into her freshman campaign as a Molalla High School athlete, she's elite.

The 15-year-old home schooler who runs in the orange and black is the fastest girl runner in the Tri-Valley Conference with a personal best time of 19 minutes, 16.9 seconds (19:16.9). That time is the best mark by 1:25, with The Dalles sophomore Alaina Casady a distant second.

In a bigger context, Jenson is the fourth-fastest girl runner in the state at 4A with just four-tenths of a second separating her from third place. It won't be long before she reaches that next mark; Jenson strives to improve and has a mental confidence about her that is impressive to behold.

PMG PHOTO: TANNER RUSS - Anika Jenson took first place at the Estacada Invitational with a personal best time of 19:16.9, giving her the fastest time in the Tri-Valley Conference.

"Well, just to be like, 'I know I can do this,'" Jenson said. "I don't hold being faster against anyone. Just knowing my own strengths helps. I've done it before, I can do it again."

Kenny Schoenfeld, first-year head coach of Molalla's cross country, believes what sets her times apart is Jenson's drive to continuously improve.

"It's finding those kids that aren't afraid to just sweat," Schoenfeld said. "I think that's mostly it. She's an incredibly hard worker. She came into the season already in amazing shape. She runs in her spare time, so there is that love of it. She's not scared to go out there … she works out with our top guys. It's just not being scared to put in the work."

When Jenson isn't training with her team, she's going on runs with her family and running as often and far as she can. It's led to great results: since the start of the year she's shaved nearly a full minute off her time.

It also helps that she's competing with family. Anika's twin sister Annalyse made her cross country debut at the Estacada Invitational on Oct. 12, finishing 11th overall with a time of 21:27.9, good enough for fifth in the conference.

Racing with her sister has been helpful for Anika, reinforcing her fundamentals and mental fortitude.

"I think coaching my sister has made me a better runner," Jenson said. "Just repeating what I already know multiple times helps me to remember it."

Having a pair of star sisters on the team has worked out well for Molalla cross country in the past. In 2013, the Molalla girls team won the state title thanks to the efforts of sisters Emily and Audrey Bever and Hannah and Amanda Clarizio.

It's something that's not lost on coach Schoenfeld.

"It's cool that we have both of them out now," Schoenfeld said. "Molalla has a really rich history on the girls side especially with siblings. We have a state championship because of the Bever sisters. It's kind of cool to see that come around again. Time is a circle, right? So hopefully we can get these sisters some big success by the time they're seniors, too."

With an Olympic dream somewhere ahead of her, Anika and her family and team are just trying to focus on what matters right now: continuing to enjoy the sport.

Her mother, Erika Jenson, wants her daughter to continue running as long as the love is there.

"I want her to be happy doing that. When she loses that happiness doing that might be the time to pull her out of it to try something else," Erika said. "You have to love what you're devoted to, and right now that's where she's at. She loves running and she wants everybody else to love it, too. It doesn't always work like that. She's out here breaking records solely for the joy of it. It's not like she's out there to beat everybody."

Schoenfeld agrees, and doesn't want to saddle his top girl runner with the weight of expectation.

"I don't want to put expectations too much on a freshman," Schoenfeld said. "I think my main goal is to continue to have her loving the sport. I don't want to put a time on it, 'that she needs to be doing this.' I think you start doing that, some kids kind of stop liking the sport and that's where you have kids quit running or get burnt out, right? So my expectations are that she continues to enjoy it, that she can continue to get more people to join the team, and just keep harboring that culture."

That culture is growing. Molalla has a girls team that's in the running for a league title, with every single team member setting a personal best at the Estacada Invitational. With Jenson a favorite to win the district title, it makes sense when you find out what she thinks about when racing.

"Speed."

Jenson and her team will challenge for the Tri-Valley Conference championship on Wednesday, Oct. 24, at McIver Park.


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