It was a race that Kickemuit Middle School 8th grader Eleanor Lial was looking forward to as her final race as a middle schooler. What happened was, by some accounts, unprecedented.
Drama, disbelief, and an unprecedented decision beset nearly 150 runners who gathered at Ponaganset High School last weekend during the RIPCOA (Rhode Island Principals Committee on Athletics, Grades 6-8) Girls’ Cross Country Championship meet on Sunday, Oct. 22.
It was a race that Kickemuit Middle School 8th grader Eleanor Lial — who has been featured in these pages before as a standout track and cross country runner — was looking forward to as her final race as a middle schooler.
Although she was nursing an illness and the favorites to win the championship were two highly-touted girls from McCourt Middle School in Cumberland, Lial had never been one to back down from a challenge, and comes from a family where competing is as natural as breathing.
“The competitive game of sports is preparing and executing,” said Eleanor’s mom, Jen Lial, in a recent interview. “And if either of those two are at fault, something is going to give and you’re either going to win or not based on those two factors.”
But neither Jen nor Eleanor could have imagined what factor would come into play next.
Some time into the 3K race (about 1.86 miles), a leading pack of between 6-8 girls (sources vary), including the two aforementioned runners from McCourt, ventured off the course, taking a turn meant for the 3.1-mile high school course. Lial, close to that pack of runners in the top 10, noticed the error after remembering the course from a pre-run walkthrough she had participated it, and adjusted. She later streaked across the finish line in first place, while the runners who ventured off course wound up at the back of the pack.
But there would be no celebration that day for Eleanor.
Immediately faced with an appeal of the results from North Cumberland and McCourt (according to The Valley Breeze), RIPCOA personnel decided on the same day to suspend the results while their committee convened to figure out what to do about the unfortunate incident.
On Monday, Oct. 23, they communicated their answer.
“An appeal was submitted to RIPCOA by two athletic directors because of the ‘technicality’ of a spotter not being in a pivotal position for the girls championship race, which was in place for the boys championship race,” RIPCOA described on its website.
As a result, they would disregard the results of last Sunday’s race, and re-do the race on Saturday, Oct. 28. The results from the first race and second race would be “merged and calculated” to assess final results. Those have not been released at this time, leaving Lial in limbo as to whether or not she actually won.
The wrong lesson learned?
It’s a decision that continues to leave those who were involved baffled.
“I have seen plenty of times when people have made a wrong turn on a course or something, you know, something unexpected happens all the time. To have a re-do of a race, I have never seen that,” said KMS coach Renae Cicchinelli. “I ran in college. I’ve coached over 10 years at the high school level and four years at the middle school level and 10 years at the college level. I’ve run post-collegiate and I’m a competitive runner still, and no, I’ve never seen that happen.”
Other reports and comments on the Valley Breeze story shared various perspectives of what actually happened that day, such as the spotter not being there or the course not being properly roped off, and that the McCourt team did not participate in a pre-race walkthrough (while the Valley Breeze story purports that they did).
Cicchinelli said regardless of what actually happened, she assumed RIPCOA would simply apologize for the mishap and vow to do better the next year.
“I don't think that we have the full story necessarily, but the story doesn't really matter. The story could be anything,” she said. “It's that the response, usually, has been that it would just be something that they try and figure out better for the next time. You can’t think of all of the different things that can happen on a course. You can only do your best. And it’s always been the person who is running the race who it ultimately comes down to, and knowing the course.”
While many other teams reportedly decided as a team to not run the re-do race, Cicchinelli said the KMS team vowed to support Eleanor, who wanted to run the race again to defend her unofficial title and cap an undefeated season. According to Jen Lial, less than half of the roughly 150 runners from the first race showed up for the re-do.
“Which speaks to what everybody thought of this decision,” she said.
Eleanor, still recovering from the illness, battled back and came in third place during the makeup race. The two favorites who went off course took first and second place.
Jen and Cicchinelli both said that Eleanor has taken the whole turn of events in stride.
“She came in third and sailed across the finish line with a smile on her face and accepted the results as they were,” Jen said. “I just continue to be shocked that no one has reached out to say anything, like ‘Congratulations’ or, honestly at this point, ‘Thank you for being a great representation of this sport and allowing this to happen and not getting mad or upset about it.’”
“It’s a lot of pressure to put on a girl who is in 8th grade, and she handled it so well,” Cicchinelli said. “She was mature, she just went out and decided she was going to do her best.”
Still, it’s a bitter pill to swallow for Jen, who believes her daughter learned a lesson that would have been better served to have been learned by the girls who went off course.
“My daughter is walking away knowing that nothing in life is a guarantee and to expect that sometimes things happen that don't turn out in your favor,” she said. “But when you look at the logistics of how all of this went down, Eleanor shouldn't be the one that we have to tell that to.”
Cicchinelli, meanwhile, wagers the situation would have gone down differently if the students were in charge of figuring out what to do instead of the adults.
“They know what’s fair and what’s not. If they had all left this up to the kids to decide, I feel like they wouldn’t have run it again,” she said. “They would have counted their losses. I don’t know, I feel like they know more about sportsmanship than some of the adults do.”
Neither of the RIPCOA cross country directors, Alana Parenteau or Justin Erickson, could be reached for comment on this story.