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St. Mary's Academy standout has been leading for years

by: COURTESY OF COLLEEN THOMPSON - Paige Rice of St. Marys Academy (second from right) runs in the Class 6A 1,500 meters during last years state track and field meet at Hayward Field.Off the track, St. Mary’s Academy senior Paige Rice is willing to go to hell and back for her fellow humans.

On the track, Rice is hell-bent on leaving her competitors in the dust.

“All bets are off on the track,” Rice says. “If you need to throw an elbow, do it. If you need to throw in this hellish surge, do it.”

Rice trains year-round and gives everything she has to experience the incomparable feeling of winning a race.

“The rush you get when you cross the finish line first is like no other,” she says. “You did what you needed to do that day to be the best.”

And the winner’s circle has been a reoccurring destination for Rice. She won three national Junior Olympics cross-country titles and has captured four Oregon School Activities Association state championships in track or cross-country.

During the years, she has become a celebrity figure in the Oregon distance running community.

“It was a big deal when she knew my name,” says St. Mary’s junior Abby Diess.

The springtime track star also is a full-time humanitarian.

“She’s one of the most competitive, but also one of the sweetest, girls I’ve ever met,” St. Mary’s track and field coach Mike Bojorquez says.

When she’s not working out or hitting the books, Rice can be found supervising children for an ESL program at Kateri Park, a housing community in Southeast Portland. Rice takes care of kids while their parents are taking English classes. She began volunteering her junior year and continues to show up every Thursday.

“I’ve learned how to properly discipline, control and entertain, and have fun,” she says.

She’s transferred those skills to help lead the Blues to victory. The team captain distributes weekly newsletters, full of “glitz and glam,” to the track team and to motivate other girls to join the squad. She says just one email often takes three hours to perfect.

Bojorquez calls her the “social director” of the team for her use of social media platforms and group texting to promote team bonding and participation.

“As a leader, she helps me make things fun for the kids,” he says.

Diess admires Rice for taking the initiative to go beyond her job description.

“She’s never been asked to do anything,” Diess says. “We’ve all grown so much with her as team leader.”

While she normally is more of a nurturing leader, Rice has one mandatory rule: At the end of Blues practices, she forces her teammates to run up a small hill at Duniway Park.

“I’m OCD with mileage,” she says. “It’s a half-mile from the bottom of the hill back to school. So if I walk down the top of the hill, it’s not a full half-mile. Say we went on a five-mile run, but it is really only a 4.8, I’ll round down to 4.5, which is a pretty dramatic round down. So I just run the extra .2 so that I don’t cheat myself.”

Rice’s parents, Craig and LeeAnn, who live in the Irvington neighborhood, conceived her when they were 25 and 26 — and were fearful that they wouldn’t have the parenting chops to handle a difficult child. Thankfully, Paige has innately made all the right decisions.

“I’m really proud of her independence and the fact that I’ve never really had to direct her schooling, training or interest in sports,” says Craig Rice.

Paige took up running because, at age 6, she lacked the hand-eye coordination to play other sports.

“I felt like I wasn’t really involved in anything,” she says. “My parents suggested running, so I tried it out. Slowly, I found love for the sport and the athleticism involved.”

At 8, she says, she found her rhythm as a runner, and at 9, “I started to roll with it.”

From 10 to 12, she was dominant in cross-country. Then at one of the zeniths of her track career, in seventh grade she ran the 1,500 meters in 4 minutes, 36.4 seconds — competitive with even the strongest high school girls.

“I don’t know how that happened. That was kind of insane,” Rice says.

But after thinking about it more, Rice credits her naivety. “I think it’s being so young and ignorant of how your body is supposed to work,” she says.

But, as Rice now knows, once you reach a certain point, your times don’t improve in a neat, consistent way. It took Rice until her sophomore year of high school to surpass her seventh-grade mark.

Rice entered high school with aspirations to win from the get-go, but that didn’t happen.

“I had a tough freshman year,” she says. “I didn’t do poorly, but I didn’t come out with a bang like I thought I would. I kind of just eased my way into high school. “

Still, Rice finished second in the state (Class 6A) in cross-country and second in the 1,500 during track season.

Her freshman year motivated her to work even harder. She ran 40 to 50 miles a week, including binge runs on weekends, during the offseason.

Then in the fall, Rice won the state cross-country meet at Lane Community College in Eugene. In the spring, she won the 1,500 and the 3,000, as the Blues claimed the state title.

During the past two years, though, Rice has again struggled to attain that level of success.

In her junior year of cross-country, she shaved eight seconds off her time, but finished fifth at state. As a senior, she placed seventh.

As a junior year on the track, she broke her personal record (9:44.96) in the 3,000, but finished fourth at state at Eugene’s Hayward Field. She won her second straight state title in the 1,500. But her personal best in the event (4:25.28) came as a sophomore.

“Even if I don’t hit the time, my maturity, how I race and my strategic plans from day to day have been a lot better,” she says.

Rice used to rely on sheer speed at the end of a race. Now, she is forced to take a more tactical approach.

“Runners have come up in the ranks; I don’t have by far the best kick anymore,” she says.

Her strategy: “You have to find your strengths on the track, be able to read your competitors and adjust within the race.”

Rice says competitive running in Oregon is abnormally strong.

“It’s no slouch game in Oregon. It’s kind of a golden era, and I’m pretty happy to be a part of it,” she says.

Despite experiencing peaks and valleys, Rice keeps her head at an intermediate altitude.

“She’s very down-to-earth and grounded about things,” her father says, adding that she also doesn’t flaunt her success. “When she has a spectacular meet, she doesn’t feel the need to let everyone know about it.”

The only time Rice was truly traumatized by disappointment was after she performed a skit with her St. Mary’s teammates at the Steens Mountain High Altitude Running Camp.

Rice and her ragtag group of young comedians set out to leave the camp in stitches with a skit she deemed “hilarious.” The skit was based on the AT&T commercials on which Saturday Night Live cast member Beck Bennett asks children questions. They geared it toward camp-related inside jokes and couldn’t stop laughing while practicing.

But, when it came time to perform ... crickets.

Rice’s teammate, Kate Patterson, ended up jumping off the table, imitating the Energizer bunny-esque strength and core conditioning coach, to save the group from complete silence and awkwardness.

But even Patterson’s boldness couldn’t dissuade a disinterested crowd.

“We don’t even bring up the skit in practice,” Rice says. “We’ve had some bad races, but I think it’s like the biggest flop we’ve ever had.”

Though the skit was an utter failure, Rice says it brought the team closer together.

“Regardless of what everyone else thinks, we are growing so much closer, because our humor is so funny,” she says. “We have a lot of distinct senses of humor on the team. Initially, we were like, ‘Oh you made a joke, that really wasn’t that funny.’ Now it’s such a laugh fest every practice.”

Rice has developed an inseparable bond with her fellow Blues.

“They’re some of my closest friends,” she says. “Classes are definitely hard, but pushing your body to the limit is a whole other thing. I find the most enjoyment being out there with them. To be able to joke around while you’re panting during an interval, that’s what makes it enjoyable.”

Even the most tear-inducing comedy acts must come to an end, though, and next year Rice plans to join the track team at Duke University, a school she picked for its close-knit but rah-rah atmosphere. Duke’s storied hoops program is just icing on the cake.

“I’m excited for the vibe of girls and guys painted in blue, Cameron Crazies, the whole epic-ness that I’m not familiar with yet,” she says.

Rice has no idea what her future occupation will be, but her father thinks she would be fantastic in marketing.

“She has fantastic people skills,” he says. “She is great at crafting an effective message for whatever she is working with.”

For now, Rice is more interested in helping those less fortunate. She is looking into the Peace Corps, “where I get to travel and really immerse myself,” she says. “It’s hard to comprehend what’s going on in the world if you’re just reading about it or looking at photos.”

She plans on taking life one step at a time.

“Maybe after I find myself I will find a career that suits me,” she says.

Rice says she will attend every St. Mary’s practice this summer, before parting ways with her beloved teammates and heading to Duke.

She hopes to keep in touch with her friends by “sending them pictures of my face” and visiting with them on Skype.

“Hopefully I’ll stay alive in memory,” she says.

“We’re gonna miss her,” teammate Lucy O’Sullivan says.

Rice’s father says she is well-equipped to step forward into adulthood.

“I have the utmost confidence that she’s ready to be sent out into the world,” he says. “She’s ready to leave the nest, and she’ll fly easily.”

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