Winning five state titles in one year is beyond a dream come true for any athlete. For Meghan McCarthy, a 1992 Robinson graduate, it happened in her freshman year of high school. She went on to set the record for most individual state titles in Virginia AAA competitions.
McCarthy won 16 individual state titles, and added 17 district and 20 regional championships in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track.
"She was a stud from the second she stepped on the track as a freshman," said Bob Digby, a track coach at Lake Braddock for 20 years, 1985-2005.
Digby's words reflect McCarthy's immediate impact on the running sports in the Northern Region and the state. McCarthy became the first freshman to win the cross country state title, and the indoor and outdoor 1600-meter and 3200-meter titles.
McCarthy attributes her early success in cross country and track to the fact that she was new to the sports. She said she started running because the high school soccer season was in the spring and she needed another sport to take part in until then. She said because she was new to the sports she did not know how important the different meets were.
"That is probably why I did so well early on," she said.
BESIDES THE FIVE titles McCarthy earned her freshman year as a Ram, she also became the first freshman to win the Kinney South cross country meet. The Kinney South meet brings in the best runners from the south region of the country, from Texas to Virginia. McCarthy repeated the feat in 1990, as a junior. She became one of only 25 runners to qualify for the national championships four times, finishing in the top eight of the regional competition. At the national championship in San Diego, she finished 12th as a freshman, and 20th the other three times.
"That was a lot of fun," she said. "I got to run against those same people when I went to college."
McCarthy was close to sweeping the cross country state titles. Her sophomore year she collapsed on the course at the state meet as she was nearing the finish line. That kept her away from winning the title all four times.
"The last thing I remembered was coming up on the last hill of the course and I was winning," she said. "The next thing I remembered I was in an ambulance."
It was determined a month later that she was suffering from mono. 1989 was therefore the only year she did not win the cross country state title.
The following year, McCarthy broke her arm after diving across the finish line at a track race. She did not run for a month, and then trained for another month with a cast on her arm. However, she came back strong to win the outdoor track state title in the 3200-meter race.
"[The title] helped quiet the people who were saying it was all luck that I was winning races," said McCarthy.
MCCARTHY WENT on to dominate the cross country trails and tracks regionally and state-wide. In cross country, she recorded three state championships. In indoor track she had six state titles, three in 1600-meter and three in 3200-meter runs. In outdoor track, she won three 1600-meter state titles, and swept the 3200-meter run, winning it all four times. She was also undefeated in those competitions during the regional meets.
The Burke Connection published an article in May of 1992 after McCarthy won her last regional title. The article said people questioned whether McCarthy was past her prime. It went on to say McCarthy had run the 1600 and 3200-meter runs in personal bests. She is quoted: "A lot of people have written me off but I think these past two weeks I've really shown people." Three weeks later the Connection paid tribute to the area's top athletes of the year. The article about McCarthy read: "A senior at Robinson, her name has become synonymous with high school running in Fairfax County."
McCarthy said she often had to silence the critics during her high school career. She said many doubted her because her times from freshman year were not improving. However, she said, it was hard to improve on a 4:57-mile time. Over the four years, she improved her mile by six seconds.
"When you have early success people will doubt you," said McCarthy. "It is hard to stay at the top year after year."
She added that it is not unusual to see a freshman or sophomore champion in girls running. The real measure, she said, is how they do after the early success.
"SHE WAS A great competitor, but she also became really good friends with her rivals," said Kevin McCarthy, Meghan McCarthy's father.
Even though Meghan McCarthy won many individual titles, her father said one of her fondest memories was the first time she got to share the winners' podium with her teammates. In 1991, her senior year, McCarthy led the Rams to their first cross country state title. "There's no other way I would have wanted to end it," said McCarthy at the time. A week earlier the Rams won the first regional cross country title since she was a freshman. The coach at the time, De Raynes, said: "I think [her many titles] place her historically with the other great runners that have been on the [Burke Lake] course."
McCarthy said she looks back at her high school career with great fondness. She said she is especially fond of her freshman year races. She said she was a dominant runner because she went into every race believing that if she ran her best she had as much of a chance of winning the race as anyone else. Also, she said, the early success helped her stick with the newfound sports.
"It is not that I thought I was better, but that I had as good of a chance as any other runner," said McCarthy.
MCCARTHY WENT on to compete for Providence College in the Big East Conference. She competed in all three sports. Her senior year Providence won the cross country NCAA title, the school's only NCAA title, beating out national powerhouse and conference foe Villanova.
Since then McCarthy moved to Boston. She has become Meghan McDonnell and became a mother 10 months ago. She works as a consultant in a marketing and communications firm, and said she finds her way to the old neighborhood a handful of times a year.