Wegert, Thomas Put Together Memorable Season

by Stephen Copeland, Sounding Board Staff Writer

MariJean Wegert and Ashley Thomas, Grace’s lethal one-two combo in women’s cross country, are polar opposites with parallel stories.

Wegert, Grace’s No. 1 runner and possibly the best this school’s ever seen, was never a “runner” per se. She only did it because her track coach her senior year of high school dared her. Thomas, on the other hand, who runs in the No. 2 slot, is a runner at heart. It’s her passion, and she plans on entering exercise science or coaching upon graduation.

Wegert isn’t sporty. Thomas is. On a perfect day, Wegert would probably read a book and drink tea. Thomas would run. Wegert runs barefoot, even in races. Thomas wears shoes, like most normal people.

It’s their stories that have always seemed to be intertwined, not their personalities. Last year was no different, when their college careers simultaneously hit rock bottom and they debated their return for their senior seasons.

Goodbye, Fun

Wegert and Thomas have yet to have an easy season. But last year, their spirits reached an all-time low.

When their head coach resigned mid-season last fall, the team felt isolated and helpless. No more workout plans. No more instruction. No more guidance.

The transition was especially difficult because of the dedication and intensity of their former coach. Thomas recalls that he only missed one day of practice during her three years at Grace – so to go from total structure to no structure was taxing.

Even though Grace hired interim head coach Art Woodruff, the coaching pressures on the women’s side naturally shifted to Thomas because of her leadership and knowledge for the sport – which only added more stress.

For both of them, running was no longer fun. It was stressful.

But that was the nature of the sport. Ever since their freshmen seasons, there was always something holding them back. In Wegert’s first season, it was anemia. In her sophomore season, it was mono. And in her junior season, it was recovering from mono combined with the stresses of the coaching vacancy.

Thomas’s situation was remarkably similar. She, too, had anemia her freshman year and was also diagnosed with Plantar Fasciitis, an inflammation on the sole of the foot. The pain became unbearable, and doctors suggested she stop running altogether. It took until her junior year for her plantar to heal completely, and injuries to her hamstring and knee made her recovery painstakingly slow.

Wegert and Thomas hit their breaking points last season, and they really considered quitting.

“There were a lot of times where I wanted to just walk away from it,” Thomas said. “MJ and I, for the first time ever, realized that we could walk away. We had a choice.”

It didn’t matter that they were the two best on the team, maybe even in Grace history. Why would you keep doing something that you hate?

Senior Glory

“I didn’t want to run this year because last year was so difficult,” Wegert said. “I remember praying that God would provide the money for me not to run or give me a change of heart. He definitely did the second one.”

After fighting through several struggles together the last three years, their stories are finally making a simultaneous positive turn.

Both received All-Little State Honors on Sept. 17, finished in the top five at the Indiana Wesleyan Invitational on Oct. 2 and ran their career bests at their previous meet on Oct. 23. Just recently, Wegert and Thomas both earned NCCAA All-American honors.

Wegert also won her first ever cross country meet at the Manchester Invitational on Oct. 16 and was named All-MCC two weeks ago. At NAIA Nationals on Nov. 20, she finished 60th in a field that included more than 300 runners. It’s been a senior season you hope every athlete has.

The only explanation to their return, both will tell you, is because God guided their situation.

Wegert’s change of heart came in the spring. After pain and confusion in the fall and winter, she began to have fun again…finally. Having Woodruff at the helm helped provide structure for the program, and for once, she was actually healthy, which led to a first place finish in the 800m at the MCC conference meet (barefoot, of course).

“We ended up having so much fun as a team and still being successful,” Wegert said. “We didn’t know that those things went together.”

Thomas’s turning point came much later – when she went on a two-mile run toward a lighthouse on the shoreline of Lake Michigan in August.

Things had gotten even more difficult that summer, even after a rigorous junior season. One of her close friends from high school was shot and killed, and she was dealing with inner turmoil from her junior year, confronting bitterness and undergoing a change of attitude.

She was in the pit, but God met her on that day in August. As she focused on the lighthouse in the distance, she noticed that the closer she got, the more of the lighthouse she saw, and the hungrier she was to reach her destination. She realized that God is the same way. The closer you get to Him, the more you see, and the hungrier you become for His love.

“Basically, I realized God was going to get me where He wanted me regardless of the outcome,” Thomas said. “He wants me to show the girls (on the team) how much He loves them, how much control He has, and He can get them through anything. I want them to know Him more.”

The key, perhaps, is running towards Him.

This article was published in the November 12 Homecoming edition of Grace’s student newspaper, The Sounding Board.

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