Milligan sophomore and former Science Hill runner Gabrielle Mardis continues to improve in large increments in several events ranging from the indoor mile to cross country 5K and the outdoor 3,000-meter steeplechase.
“I think now that I’m getting into the back half of college that I’m more concerned about steady improvement,” she said. “I think the transition from a big high school like Science Hill to a small college like Milligan really helped me. It’s more like a community and I enjoy the smaller class sizes.”
Her most recent and final performance of the 2019-20 was a runner-up finish at the NAIA indoor national championships in the 3,000 meters. In the final, she finished in a quick 10:13.03.
“Both the prelims and finals at indoor nationals were unique races,” Milligan head coach Chris Layne said. “The top girl went out both times and chased the national record. In the finals, Gabby and Katlyn (Haas) went together and passed all those girls and made a bold move. It was the right move and had Gabby been with the top girl near the end, she could’ve given her a run because she was closing the gap.”
SOLID AT SCIENCE HILL
Mardis really burst onto the scene during her senior season with the Lady Hilltoppers.
Starting in the fall, Mardis finished a stout 25th overall in the TSSAA state cross country championships in the Large Schools race, finishing in 20:00.
Her personal best for that season wound up being a 19:23.85 when she finished a strong runner-up at the Cherokee Invitational in Knoxville.
Some other marks she boasted at Science Hill include a 5:24.91 1,600 meters and 11:40.27 for 3,200.
However, she never competed at the TSSAA state outdoor championships as an individual, but she constantly improved year-by-year and was recruited by Layne.
FALL AT NATIONALS
“Gabby is one of those that came in and really needed to start trusting in herself more,” Layne said. “Over these last couple of years, she’s gained a ton of confidence and is starting to prove that she is a competitor on the big stages.”
Had it not been for a fall and getting badly trampled at the beginning of the national cross country meet last November, Mardis would likely have another massive personal best in the 5K.
She had gone from barely breaking 19 minutes in her freshman year to flirting with the 18-minute barrier her sophomore campaign, running 18:12.8.
“It was definitely exciting breaking 19 minutes for the first time because I had been wanting to do that since high school,” she said.
THE HARD ROUTINE OF STEEPLECHASING
Anyone that has ever done or has watched the steeplechase knows that it is a grueling event that takes patience and a fair amount of skill.
Mardis did a couple of steeplechase races in high school, but really seemed to develop a loving relationship with the race once she got to Milligan.
“I really like the 3K distance and I always viewed it as a gutsy race,” she said. “I think this outdoor season, had it happened, (I) would’ve been really good in the steeplechase. I just barely missed the finals last year and my goal was to make the final this year.”
Said Layne: “She’s really the epitome of what we’re looking for. She’s a tough racer and she knows how she should be feeling. She told me from the first day that she got here that she wanted to steeple. That’s her baby and I think with the way her 1500/mile times were progressing that she would’ve been ready to run at nationals this year. That was the only time that I have really seen her spooked ... last year at outdoor nationals.”
Mardis started doing Girls on the Run at an early age and needed a parent to jog along with her on the course. Her mother Jill stepped in and jogged along.
Nowadays, Mardis has her mother hooked on running.
“My mom does some marathons now and she runs all the time,” she said. “I guess I kind of got her started. She tries to come to every single one of my races.”
Jill is also the owner of the Natural Foods Market in Johnson City.
Mardis maintains a 4.0 GPA in the classroom and is an elementary education major.
“Gabby is so humble and even-keeled,” Layne said. “You never see her get upset and she is probably one of the most level-headed runners I’ve ever had. Her reaction to finishing runner-up at nationals was the same reaction she had at Camel City when she had a big PR and at every other race. I know deep down she was proud of herself after that one, but she never showed it. That’s one of the things I really like about her.”
Said Mardis: “Coach Layne always makes the team feel like a family. The expectations are very high, but he creates a fun atmosphere.”