GAINESVILLE — Florida freshman Cory McGee's interest in running began with her efforts to spend more time with her father and older sister, Shannon. The longer the 8-year-old could hang during their 4-mile beach runs, the more time she could spend with them.
Her love for the sport came as she ran through some of the most exotic places in the world — the pyramids in Egypt, the Black Forest in Germany and the ancient roads of Sparta.
Her middle distance running as an eighth-grader competing in varsity competition fueled her desire to succeed in the sport, and has continued throughout her first season with the Gators.
The 18-year-old won the SEC Indoor title in the mile and was named SEC freshman of the year. When the Gators begin competition in the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, today, McGee has high hopes to be in the running for a national title. Not bad for a kid who didn't realize until age 13 that this running thing might really be her calling.
"When I was living outside of the United States, I didn't realize then that my running might lead to a college scholarship or maybe to the Olympics," said McGee, the daughter of Jim McGee, a former UF football player. "Living in Athens, Greece, and seeing the possibilities of maybe going to the Olympics one day, that definitely inspired me a little bit. And then running in so many amazing places with my dad, that definitely sparked my interest."
Jim McGee is a retired FBI agent whose job took his family to exotic locales. When Cory was a student at an American school in Greece, the cross country and track seasons consisted of one meet per season against students at area schools. She competed in a cross county meet in Cairo, a race on the Delta of the Nile and another near the Pyramids. She won them all.
But it was on a long run with her dad on the famed steps of Santorini that McGee experienced her first real thrill of victory.
"Santorini is one of the more famous islands in Greece and there's a set of stairs that goes all the way up the side of the island," McGee said. "It's a volcano actually, the island itself, and it's a few hundred steps. It's just mules out there. My dad and I decided to run that one day and on the way back I finally beat him going up the stairs. It was the first time — it took a good five years for me to finally beat him. People talk about the runner's high, I think that was the first time I experienced it. It was exciting."
It is those experiences, UF cross country and distance coach Todd Morgan says, that have helped her have success so quickly in the SEC.
"Her maturity is beyond her years," Morgan said. "All the moving around and that stuff has gotten her to where she is now. And not only does she have that, but she has the athletic ability to back it up, which is great."
When McGee and her family returned to the United States shortly after the 2004 Olympics, she wanted to run competitively but there was no formal cross country team at Pass Christian (Miss.) High School. She entered the state meet as an independent and finished second. Then she formed the school's first cross country team, recruiting her older sister and three friends to meet the state-required five members.
But Hurricane Katrina changed everything. Her family's home in Pass Christian — a beachfront community between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala. — was severely damaged. Her grandparents' home was destroyed and her family relocated temporarily to New Mexico, where she missed several months of school.
"I did a lot of running, and there were some interesting ones," she said. "I saw a few coyotes while running. That was another adventure."
Morgan discovered McGee at a meet in North Carolina and monitored her high school career. He was determined to bring her to Florida.
"I wouldn't have recruited her as hard as I did if I didn't think she was going to be a great runner," Morgan said. "She's exceeded what I thought she would do this year. And I'm even more impressed with her now than before she came. She's really made an impact for us not only on the track, but she's a great leader and a tremendous team player."
McGee hopes to bring her freshman year to a close with a strong finish at the Outdoor Championships.
"It was exciting to be in the finals at the NCAAs (indoor championship), but nobody wants to finish 10th," she said. "But I think I'm running my best right now. After regionals, I definitely felt good. So I think that things have been set out pretty well throughout the year and Coach has done a great job getting us ready to perform at NCAAs when the time is right. I'm excited to see what can happen."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.